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Dream of Red Chamber opera set for SF debut

By Lia Zhu in San Francisco (China Daily USA) Updated: 2016-09-02 12:13

Some tickets are even harder to get than Hamilton.

Dream of the Red Chamber, the first adaptation of the epic Chinese novel into an opera, will have its world debut at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco with six performances Sept 10-29.

The world premier will be presented in six performances from Sept 10 to 29, sung in English with English and Chinese subtitles.

Commissioned by the San Francisco Opera, the two-act opera in English (with Chinese subtitles) was written by MacArthur Fellow composer Bright Sheng and Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang.

Celebrated playwright and director Stan Lai and Academy Award-winning designer Tim Yip joined the production team as director and production designer respectively.

The creative team said they were all big fans of the novel, which is considered one of the four greatest novels in the history of Chinese literature. Also known as The Story of the Stone, it's an autobiographical work by 18th century Qing Dynasty writer Cao Xueqin.

It's not easy to adapt a 120-chaper novel with more than 400 characters into a two-act opera, said Sheng, who added that he had read the novel five or six times before taking on the project.

The opera focuses on the illustrious Jia clan and the love triangle between Jia's young heir Bao Yu and two very different women - his beautiful cousin and soul mate Dai Yu, and his future wife, another beautiful cousin named Bao Chai.

Framed by dreamlike prologue and epilogue sequences, the opera aims to relate the poetry and sadness of the novel as a lush and lyrical opera for the 21st century.

"I aim to blend Chinese aesthetics and Asian philosophies within a contemporary sensibility to create a play between visual lushness and sparseness befitting the score and the novel's themes of impermanence," said Lai.

The opera also employs Chinese instruments - strong percussion like gongs and the ancient stringed qin - to create a unique and introspective feeling, according to Sheng.

The qin, which has a sound even softer than a guitar, appears twice in the opera - once in a scene when Daiyu plays it and again at the end when the same leitmotif returns but with a different meaning, he said.

Yip, who also designed the costumes for the 2010 made-for-television production of the Dream of the Red Chamber, said he took a different approach of mixing reality with fantasy for the opera.

Unlike Beijing Opera, which features bright colors and communicates details, Yip said the details are blurred and the costumes are translucent to "give space for the music to stimulate emotion".

Calling the new opera "an incredibly sweeping work", San Francisco Opera general director Matthew Shilvock said the piece tells an emotional and universal love story and works particularly well for the stage.

The work is also expected to serve a window for better understanding the culture of China.

"So when we do deal with big issues between Washington and Beijing, people would have a better understanding of how human relationships work in China," said San Francisco Opera board member Doreen Woo Ho. "I think it is a way of being able to translate that understanding and help build that bridge."

Dream of the Red Chamber, with a cast of established and Asian singers, features Chinese tenor Yijie Shi as Bao Yu, South Korean soprano Pureum Jo as Dai Yu and Japanese American mezzo-soprano Irene Roberts as Bao Chai.

The opera will be the eighth world premiere at the San Francisco Opera in the last 10 seasons and the company's second major Asian work after The Bonesetter's Daughter in 2008.

As a co-production with the Hong Kong Arts Festival, the opera will be performed on March 17 and 18 at the Hong Kong Cultural Center as the finale of its 45th annual festival.


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