SAN FRANCISCO — Great novels, we’re told, rarely make great opera. Complete unto themselves, they leave little room for music or staging. Better to adapt lesser works, preferably ones with memorable characters in melodramatic situations. By this count, Mérimée’s Carmen will trump Flaubert’s Emma Bovary any day.
So where does this leave Dream of the Red Chamber (either Cao Xueqin’s Qing-dynasty epic or composer Bright Sheng’s opera)? The novel remains universally known and beloved among Chinese readers, yet it lies somewhere trapped between specialized readership and total obscurity in the world at large. Sheng’s stage adaptation, after its landmark tour of China in 2017, became the first of San Francisco Opera’s commissions to be revived at the city’s War Memorial Opera House, continuing through July 3.
Back when I gave talks with the opera’s librettist David Henry Hwang its 2016 premiere, we were searching for a catchphrase to describe the world of Red Chamber when we came up with “Downton Abbey times China.” Like the British costume drama, Red Chamber is a sprawling tale of a family household with numerous idiosyncratic characters, with an “Upstairs, Downstairs” duality between family and servants resulting in both comic and dramatic tension, making a powerful metaphor where of the decline of a single family representing the end of a society at large. In both tales, some characters see it coming; most don’t. I still think it’s a good description, as far as it goes. But no adaptation — not even the two versions of Red Chamber made for Chinese television in 1987 and 2010 — could plumb the depths and inspire devotion like the original. Much of the reason stems from Red Chamber being that rare breed of novels: the unfinished masterpiece — and unfinished much like Puccini’s Turandot, not because the creator died in the throes of writing it but rather deserted the piece for years, unable to complete the story with the same intensity.
Another factor is that Red Chamber has no truly definitive edition. Even in publication, after circulating privately in manuscript for decades, not even the titles of different versions were consistent. (The David Hawkes-John Minford translation that most informed the opera was published as The Story of the Stone). The ending, supposedly pulled together by an editor from the author’s notes, satisfied no one. Little wonder, then, that active Chinese readers — the ones who often write notes in the margins longer than the original text — frequently devised endings of their own.
This is the source material that, at the behest of the Chinese Heritage Foundation Friends of Minnesota, Bright Sheng and David Henry Hwang brought to the stage, directed by Stan Lai with a visual design by Tim Yip. In many ways, Dream of the Red Chamber was spiritually akin to Stewart Wallace and Amy Tan’s 2008 opera The Bonesetter’s Daughter, another San Francisco Opera commission. Both works, shepherded to the stage by former and current general directors David Gockley and Matthew Shilvock respectively, were conscious efforts to enrich the repertoire with new source material recognizable to an operatically underserved demographic.
Having been involved with both productions — Red Chamber at its premiere and subsequent performances at the Hong Kong Arts Festival (an initial co-producer) and the later China tour, Bonesetter during the actual composition of the piece — I saw their missions fulfilled in surprisingly opposite ways. Wallace (who composed the earlier San Francisco-centric Harvey Milk) and Tan (one of the city’s most beloved novelists) essentially threw a Bay Area block party, inviting one of the city’s most famous immigrant groups as the guest of honor. But despite the 2008 Beijing Olympic fever or the number of Chinese artists involved in the production, it failed to resonate in China, where the basic concepts of emigration and a Chinese minority found little recognition or sympathy.
Red Chamber was a different experience entirely. Critics at both the premiere and the 2022 revival have found much to admire, along with numerous frustrations. Reviews have noted a structural imbalance between the background-heavy first act and the comparably seamless flow of the second. Together with Bonesetter (which had similar disproportions), the effect shows the challenges in adapting a traditionally Chinese narrative style to a western medium. Both operas kept reminding me of the scene with Diana Rigg and Miss Piggy in The Great Muppet Caper (Miss Piggy: Why are you telling me all this? Rigg: It’s exposition, it has to go somewhere.)
The reaction in China, however, was a world apart. Much like the novel, the opera was less an authoritative statement than the start of a conversation. Gaps and compressions from the original story presented few problems — similar narrative slashings have been done in traditional Chinese opera and at least two Shaw Brothers films. Instead, the challenges came in following a familiar story through an unfamiliar medium; many were seeing a western opera for the first time.
Critical evaluations were mostly favorable. Li Cheng, a music critic for the Beijing Morning Post and editor of China’s Music Weekly, was particularly adulatory in describing Sheng’s handling of the ensemble writing. Even on social media, both supporters and detractors engaged with each other.
Every time a story reappears in a new language or medium, the overriding question should be, what does the new version add? For all its quirks, the Hawkes-Minford translation embraces the epic timelessness of Cao’s original while broadly opening the story to non-Chinese readers. Regarding opera, the relationship is rather less equitable.
Opera by nature is reductive, mostly employing subtraction. Red Chamber is in league with War and Peace, though Tolstoy’s novel is half the size and Prokofiev’s opera twice as long. The Red Chamber libretto lops off at least 400 characters, most of the narrative threads, and any action in the remaining episodes that doesn’t directly advance the story. That trimming leaves little time for family intrigue, elaborate descriptions of banquets, or arguments about the qualities of a good Chinese poem — and considering that the libretto is in English, also ignores the intricacy and elegance of the original language that makes the novel ripe for frequent re-readings. By any objective measure, it’s hard to see what opera has to offer Dream of the Red Chamber.
But what does Red Chamber offer opera? That is a different proposition entirely. Given the generally high emotional tone, multiple deaths, and the financial ruin of a prominent family, one would be hard-pressed to find a more suitably operatic story in world literature. Even more crucially, the key characters conveniently fall into internationally standard dramatic and vocal types. Of the story’s treasured love triangle, the teenage Bao Yu is a tenor much like the impulsive Calaf, the gifted and sickly Dai Yu a consumptive soprano heroine in the tradition of Mimi and Violetta, and the pragmatic and reliable Bao Chai — is anyone surprised here? — a mezzo-soprano. Structurally, once all the narrative digressions are removed (and the remaining details rearranged and compressed) the story smoothly fits a familiar emotional arc. China has many stories to give the world, but few tick all the opera boxes so neatly.
Having now been in the audience for opening night of the revival, I see how small but judicious cuts have heightened the opera’s momentum. A new conductor and mostly new cast — many making their San Francisco Opera debuts — frequently bring fresh insights to their characters and the musical score. Much as Red Chamber devotees return frequently to Cao’s novel — some readers claim to reread it every year — audiences in San Francisco are again reminded that knowing the story beforehand need not spoil the experience but can actually deepen an appreciation of a work’s artistry.
At least in that regard, the opera and the novel are on the same page.