Epic Chinese Novel Retooled As Opera By Sheng, Hwang

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Relief panel portraying star-crossed lovers in the classic Chinese novel by Cao Xueqin, ‘Dream of the Red Chamber.’
(Photo by IvanWalsh.com/Flickr)
By Janos Gereben

SAN FRANCISCO — David Henry Hwang’s first hit play  — at age 22 — was the 1979 FOB, but there is nothing “fresh off the boat” about the Los Angeles-born author, who lives in New York. Chinese and Asian themes dominate in his large oeuvre of drama and opera, though he readily admits that “my Chinese is fairly non-existent.”

Librettist David Henry Hwang (Wikipedia)
David Henry Hwang read the novel’s English translation. (Wikipedia)

That was the main reason Hwang at first turned down composer Bright Sheng’s request to write the libretto for the San Francisco Opera-commissioned Dream of the Red Chamber, a co-production with Hong Kong Arts Festival.

Hwang eventually became co-author with Sheng of the English libretto for the opera, which will have its world premiere Sept. 10 in the War Memorial Opera House. The playwright was aware of Cao Xueqin’s original novel “by its formidable reputation, but I never read it, not even in translation.”

Known for his many plays, including the Tony-Award winning M. Butterfly, Hwang — whose mother was a piano teacher — has a passionate interest in opera. He is the librettist of Unsuk Chin’s Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Howard Shore’s The Fly, Philip Glass’ The Voyage, and Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar among others.

Hwang knew that “of the four great Chinese novels, Dream was the domestic story – and the sexy one. I also knew that it is generally regarded as the greatest work of Chinese literature.” The other most acclaimed Chinese classics are Romance of the Three Kingdoms, attributed to Luo Guanzhong; Journey to the West (Monkey), attributed to Wu Cheng’en; and Water Margin or Outlaws of the Marsh (All Men Are Brothers), attributed to Shi Nai’an or Luo Guanzhong.

Bright Sheng (Peter Shin)
Composer Bright Sheng is co-author of the libretto. (Peter Shin)

Crediting Sheng with “a vision on how to tackle the adaptation,” Hwang finally agreed to take on the project, but only if the composer joined him as co-librettist. He read David Hawkes’ five-volume translation of the novel, known in English as The Story of the Stone (Penguin).

Among those who grew up with Red Chamber is t’ai chi master and Taoist scholar Chungliang Al Huang, who says the work is an affecting story of a love triangle between Bao Yu and his two cousins, Dai Yu and Bao Chai.

“Even as a teenager,” says Huang, “I was infatuated with this beautifully written, romantic, intriguing, and sad story of unrequited love, especially in sympathy with Dai Yu, the tragic heroine who embodies poetic feminine fragility. This mega-saga needs to have time immersion and maturity for the readers to enter gradually into the lengthy story line with 40 major characters and close to 500 minor ones.”

Described superficially as a Romeo-and-Juliet love story, Dream of the Red Chamber was first published in 1791, during the Qing dynasty (1644-1912). An NPR feature about a recent English adaptation offered this Cliffs Notes summary: “Boy meets girl No. 1; then boy meets girl No. 2. Boy likes them both, but he’s in love with girl No. 1. So when the boy is forced into an arranged marriage with girl No. 2, tragedy ensues.”

Set sketch for Act 1. (Tim Yip Studio for San Francisco Opera)
Set sketch for Act 1. (Tim Yip Studio for San Francisco Opera)

Among the numerous films made of the novel is a Hong Kong-produced version with the Shanghai Yue opera troupe; when it was shown in Shanghai, 36 movie theaters screened it 24 hours a day to full houses. A 1987 television series, produced by China Central Television, came in 36 episodes.

Scholars devoting their lives to the study of the novel call their discipline “Redology.” The most prominent Redologist was Zhou Ruchang, who spent seven decades studying the work. Initially supported by Mao Tse-tung, who claimed to have read Red Chamber five times, Zhou — who died in 2012 at age 94 — ended up in prison during the Cultural Revolution anyway.

Once Hwang had immersed himself in the novel, the playwright and Sheng worked together, struggling with the humongous size: twice the length of War and Peace and incorporating hundreds of named characters. They made drastic changes as needed, including the wholesale reduction of singing characters to seven, adding a non-singing monk (actor Randall Nakano) and ensemble participants, such as maids and eunuchs.

Sketch of Tim Yip's costume design for Princess Jia
Sketch of Tim Yip’s costume design for Princess Jia.

Corresponding by email, Hwang wrote that he was “awed by its scope, spirituality, and grasp of essential human truths.” He called its grandeur “a giant picture window into a long-lost world: imperial China at its final moments of wealth and glory, just before the fall. I am fortunate to have experienced this world classic with great artists like Bright, Stan Lai, and Tim Yip, who have known it so long and so well.” Lai is the San Francisco production’s stage director and Yip, winner of an Oscar for art direction of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, is set and costume designer.

On his website, Sheng describes two particularly striking scenes:

“At the center of the opera is an erotic dream scene by the male protagonist which sets the tone for this tragic love triangle tale. The last image of the opera, [against] a white snowing backdrop: the female protagonist slowly walks and drowns herself into her favorite lake, with her floating singing over the soft a cappella chorus, accompanied by only the harp and qin (Chinese zither), after the Grand Garden (the Red Chamber) is burned down by the Emperor’s soldiers.”

The opera was commissioned and the production organized, jointly with the composer and others, by San Francisco Opera general director emeritus David Gockley before he retired at the end of the last season, his tenth in San Francisco, after 33 years heading the Houston Grand Opera. Red Chamber is among Gockley’s 45 commissions, all but one (Marco Tutino’s Two Women) by American composers — a unique, historical accomplishment in a genre whose audience, by and large, is not readily welcoming to contemporary works.

Soprano Irene Roberts is featured as the heroine Bao Chai.
Irene Roberts is featured as heroine Bao Chai. (Cassandra Harms)

Hwang, who probably has more experience with Asian-American productions and the curse of “yellowface” substitutions than anyone, specified in his contract — in agreement with his collaborators — that only Asian and Asian-American singers be engaged in the principal roles. The goal has been met, even when a change was required for one principal: Sacramento-born Japanese-American mezzo-soprano Irene Roberts, who sang the title role in the company’s summer production of Carmen, directed by Calixto Bieito in his American opera debut, will appear as Bao Chai. Roberts replaces the originally announced Nian Wang, who has withdrawn from the project.

In addition to Asian-Americans, the other principals hail from China, South Korea, and Taiwan. The rest of the cast is a delightfully global-cosmopolitan-San Franciscan mix of enormously talented young singers from the U.S., Latvia, and New Zealand.

The production, conducted by George Manahan, will be performed Sept. 10, 13, 18, 23, 27, and 29. For more information, go here.

[More from Janos Gereben about this opera in an article for San Francisco Classical Voice, at the time of the original announcement: https://www.sfcv.org/music-news/sf-opera-to-premiere-work-based-on-chinese-classic]

Janos Gereben has covered the ground from Hungary, where he had a newspaper staff position at age 15, to New York (Herald-Tribune, Time-Life, UPI), Detroit (Free Press), Hawaii (Kona Torch, Star-Bulletin), to Seattle (Times). An Alicia Patterson Fellowship Award allowed him a year of running around the world, and then he settled down for good in San Francisco, where he has worked with the Mercury-News, Post Newspaper Group, S.F. Examiner, and — since its foundation in 1998 — San Francisco Classical Voice.