SAN FRANCISCO – In 2016, San Francisco Opera premiered an operatic version of the Chinese literary classic Dream of the Red Chamber, giving the opera a visually spectacular production, which the company is reviving for a three-week run at the War Memorial Opera House ending July 3.
Composer Bright Sheng and co-librettist Henry David Hwang distilled the essential core of Cao Xueqin’s 2,000-plus-page novel, which was written in the 18th century, emphasizing political intrigue and the love triangle in the story, while remaining faithful to the epic tale’s themes and events and its metaphysical framework — the Buddhist and Daoist notions of impermanence and karma — but translating it into English.
A Buddhist monk introduces the opera and tells the story of an ancient divine stone and a crimson pearl flower who seek to fulfill their love by living as mortals on Earth. Though the monk tries to dissuade them from such a course, the flower becomes Dai Yu, a brilliant but frail young woman, and the stone turns into Bao Yu, a spoiled youth who is the sole heir of the once-powerful Jia family. Another character, Bao Chai, an heiress of the wealthy Xue clan, becomes the third leg of the triangle, a woman Bao Yu’s family wants him to marry in order to solve their financial distress. The ending is both tragic and wistful.
The Emperor’s soldiers storm in and seize the two clans’ fortunes and burn the estate. Dai Yu slowly walks into the lake and disappears. Bao Yu becomes the monk, and his family members turn into beggars, wandering through the illusion known as life.
Six months after its premiere in San Francisco, Dream of the Red Chamber traveled to the Hong Kong Arts Festival. In another six months, the production made history when it became the first American opera to tour China. Published in five volumes in 1791, the original Dream novel has inspired numerous films and spoken dramas, along with two television series and many Chinese operas. But the story had never before made it to the international operatic stage or ever into English.
The project grew out of a conversation between two friends, Pearl Lam Bergad and Linda Hoeschler, in Minneapolis in 2001. Born in Vietnam of Chinese parents, Bergad, a retired nuclear biologist, is executive director of the Chinese Heritage Foundation, which funds arts projects in order to promote Chinese culture. Both had read Dream of the Red Chamber — all five volumes — and loved it, and thought it would make a great opera. Three years later, Bergad mentioned the idea to Ming Li Tchou, who, then 92, could be described as the matriarch of the Twin Cities Chinese community. Ming loved the idea and right away offered $100,000.
The Foundation, under Bergad’s guidance, began to raise additional funds. John Nuechterlein, director of the Composers Forum, introduced Bergad and Ming to Kevin Smith, who had just retired as general director of Minnesota Opera, and engaged him to be a consultant to the project. Smith brought them to David Gockley, then general director of San Francisco Opera, who said an immediate yes, partly because of the large Asian population in the Bay Area.
Gockley, moreover, was no stranger to new works, having commissioned many operas during his years at the helm of the Houston Grand Opera. The Heritage Foundation’s total contribution came to $250,000, which paid the commissions to Sheng and Hwang. The cost of the production was $6 million.
The creative team Gockley and Smith assembled included Shanghai-born Sheng, a 2001 MacArthur Fellow who has spent most of his career in the U.S. Sheng was 12 when he first read Dream of the Red Chamber, which was allowed during the second half of the Cultural Revolution, as a kind of diatribe against feudalism. Sheng considers himself to be an amateur “Redologist,” that is, an expert in the novel. For librettist, Sheng brought in Hwang, a busy playwright, whose first Broadway success, M Butterfly, he transformed into an opera with composer Huang Ruo that will be presented in a new version starting July 30 at Santa Fe Opera.
Sheng and Hwang were friends who had collaborated on an earlier opera, The Silver River. The playwright and director Stan Lai was engaged to stage the work, and Tim Yip, an Oscar-winner for art direction for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, would be the designer. George Manahan conducted the premiere performances in San Francisco. Sheng conducted the performances in Hong Kong and China. Darrell Ang is conducting the revival.
The production, it turns out, is as stunningly beautiful and picturesque as it was in 2016. Yip’s dreamlike sets are highlighted by painted panels that rise and fall to create various intricate patterns, including the convincing destruction of the Jia family estate at the end. Jai Alltizer supervised the lavish and detailed costumes.
Among the principal players in this cast of 73, all were new except for the beguiling soprano Karen Chia-Ling Ho, who created the role of Princess Jia in 2016. The cast was uniformly strong and appealing — overall, perhaps a more winning group than was seen on the War Memorial stage six years ago. Meigui Zhang offered a delicate portrayal of Dai Yu, shy and trembling in her first scenes, becoming bolder and more passionate as the character gains confidence and displaying a warm, supple soprano and elegantly tapered high notes. Her counterpart, Konu Kim, played Bao Yu as an obstreperous rich kid who matures and finally falls into despair as the story progresses. Kim sang throughout with a rich, flexible tenor. Other fine performances came from Hyona Kim (Lady Wang), Hongni Wu (Bao Chai) and Sabina Kim (Granny Jia).
In an interview in April, Sheng said Gockley asked him to compose an opera that was “lyrical, harmonically consonant with a lot of Chinese folk color.” Indeed, working with Hwang’s poetic libretto, Sheng’s score, though essentially lyrical in the 19th-century Western manner, makes skillful use of Chinese folk and classical idioms and gains ample atmosphere from the exotic sound of the qin, a Chinese zither, which Dai plays in the evocative second scene of Act One.
The vocal lines, though perhaps over-dominated by high notes, a Sheng trademark, are gracefully written, and his orchestrations are customarily lush and inventive. He made, he said, small changes in the score before the production went to Hong Kong and some more afterward. The pacing of the opera seemed brisk and more varied than it did in 2016. Sheng also has said he is working with a translator who will translate Hwang’s text into Chinese, which means he will re-write the entire opera, line for line.
In the opera’s tender final scene, Dai Yu departs this world during a melancholy chorus: “When spring has fled, and beauty is spent, who cares for the fallen petals? Both flower and maiden return to dust.”
The thought is typically Chinese: Life is impermanent and all existence is evanescent.