S.F. Opera to Premiere Work Based on Chinese Classic

Janos Gereben on December 17, 2015
Making the announcement: David Gockley, Pearl Bergad, Bright Sheng, Tim Yip, Stan Lai (Photo by Janos Gereben)
Making the announcement: David Gockley, Pearl Bergad, Bright Sheng, Tim Yip, Stan Lai (Photo by Janos Gereben)

"Opera has told great stories in a particularly meaningful way," David Gockley told a press conference on Dec. 16, as the San Francisco Opera general director announced details of a new opera he has commissioned — the 43rd in his career, and the eighth for the company he started running in 2006.

An example, he said, of opera's power to tell a great story is the subject of the press conference: Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber, a world premiere coming to the War Memorial, Sept. 10-29, 2016. The English libretto adapting the Qing Dynasty epic is by Sheng and David Henry Hwang, the prominent playwright. Sheng and Hwang have collaborated before on the opera Silver River.

Cao Xueqin wrote the first 80 chapters of Dream of the Red Chamber, first published in 1790, and then collaborators added 40 more chapters later. The book, the source of films and TV series, is so important in China that the word "Redology" was coined for its study. 

The romantic family drama has more than 40 important characters, so — in Sheng's understatement during the panel discussion — it was "a daunting task" to distill most of the story into a three-hour opera. The libretto by Sheng and Hwang focuses on eight central characters and the aristocratic love triangle of the main character, Bao Yu, his cousin Dai Yu, and his future wife, another cousin named Bao Chai

Production design by Tim Yip and projection design by John Wong
Production design by Tim Yip and projection design by John Wong

Asked about his fusion of Chinese and Western music, Sheng, who has just turned 60, was born in Shanghai, spent seven years near Tibet during the Cultural Revolution, and has lived and worked in the U.S. since 1982. His years in Tibet and his interest in folk music led him to collaborate with Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Project. He said he considers both himself and his music "100 percent Chinese and 100 percent American," although he also said he rarely thinks about that now. 

Gockley said he had asked Sheng that Dream of the Red Chamber "be composed in a beautifully lyrical style, nostalgic and retain aspects of a traditional Chinese soundscape. I’m very pleased to say that he has indeed succeeded in these efforts. We have cast a remarkable all-Asian cast."

The creative team includes Stan Lai, stage director; George Manahan, music director; Tim Yip, production and costume designer, winner of an Oscar for his art direction of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Yip said his design follows the Chinese aesthetic of giving equal importance to empty spaces, rather than focusing on objects only. Also on the panel: Pearl Bergad, of the Minneapolis-based Chinese Heritage Foundation, who first suggested the project to Gockley.

The cast features Chinese tenor Yijie Shi (in the role of Bao Yu); South Korean soprano Pureum Jo (Dai Yu); Chinese mezzo-soprano and current San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow Nian Wang (Bao Chai); in her U.S. debut, Chinese contralto Qiulin Zhang (Granny Jia); South Korean mezzo-soprano Hyona Kim (Lady Wang); Taiwanese soprano and Merola Opera Program alumna Karen Chia-Ling Ho (Princess Jia); and Chinese-American mezzo-soprano and San Francisco Opera veteran from 1990 to 1993, Yanyu Guo (Aunt Xue).