In the second production of its new season at the War Memorial Opera House this week, San Francisco Opera presents the world premiere of Dream of the Red Chamber, a Company commission, and a co-production with the Hong Kong Arts Festival. Dream of the Red Chamber is based on the classic 18th century Chinese novel by Cao Xueqin, with a score by composer Bright Sheng, who co-wrote the libretto with David Henry Hwang. It’s to be performed as part of the Hong Kong Arts Festival’s 45th annual festival in March 2017, at the Grand Theatre in the Hong Kong Cultural Centre.
Dream of the Red Chamber – which is as much of a classic in Chinese literary culture as is Romeo and Juliet in the Western World – revolves around a love triangle in which Bao Yu, the young heir of the illustrious Jia family, finds himself enmeshed. He is in love with Dai Yu, his spiritual soulmate, but is also attracted to Bao Chai, who is beautiful and more worldly than Dai Yu. In addition, Bao Chai comes from the wealthy Xue Clan, and Bao Yu’s mother, Lady Wang, has it in mind to arrange for her son to marry this wealthy heiress, in the hope that the Jia family will be able to repay a long-standing debt to the Imperial Court. This becomes of increasing importance when the Emperor rejects Princess Jia as his favored concubine, and the Jia family’s wealth is threatened, along with Bao Yu’s desired union with Dai Yu.
The tale is related by a mysterious figure, The Monk, in a series of dreamlike sequences, starting with a prologue in which he tells of a stone which was left behind from the construction of Heaven, and a crimson pearl flower, which was nurtured for 3,000 years by dew from the stone. Stone and Flower wish to fulfil their love as mortals on earth, and – despite The Monk’s advice to the contrary – they travel to earth through a magic mirror. Bao Yu and Dai Yu are the human incarnations of Stone and Flower.
Chinese-American Bright Sheng – also a conductor and pianist – is regarded as one of today’s foremost composers, whose works are regularly performed throughout North America, Europe and Asia. In 2001 he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, and described by the Foundation as “an innovative composer who merges diverse musical customs in works that transcend conventional aesthetic boundaries”. In the same year, Mr Sheng was also the recipient of an American Award in Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and won an ASCAP Achievement Award the following year.
David Gockley, General Director Emeritus of San Francisco Opera – who commissioned the work – says: “In conversations with Bright, I asked 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.”
From the outset, an English libretto to the opera was planned, to make it easily accessible to non-Chinese-speaking audiences. Chinese-American playwright David Henry Hwang – America’s most-produced living opera librettist, according to Opera News – has also been described by Time magazine as “the first important dramatist of American public life since Arthur Miller”. He is probably best known for his 1998 Tony Award-winning play M. Butterfly, which also won Drama Desk, John Gassner and Outer Critics Circle awards, and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Included in Mr Hwang’s musicals are a Tony-nominated new book for Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song, and Disney’s Tarzan.
The cast of Dream of the Red Chamber comprises mainly Asian artists – both established and rising singers. Chinese tenor Yijie Shi and South Korean soprano Pureum Jo make their San Francisco Opera debuts as the lovers Bao Yu and Dai Yu. Also making her Company debut is South Korean mezzo-soprano Hyona Kim as Lady Wang, and Japanese-American mezzo-soprano Irene Roberts is the beautiful Bao Chai. Ms Roberts will be remembered for her recent appearance in the title role of San Francisco Opera’s production of Carmen.
Chinese contralto Qiulin Zhang appears for the first time in the United States in the role of Granny Jia, the clan elder who attempts to secure a happy future for Bao Yu and Dai Yu, and Taiwanese soprano – and Merola Opera Program alumna – Karen Chia-ling Ho is the rejected concubine Princess Jia. Chinese-American mezzo-soprano – and former San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow – Yanyu Guo is Aunt Xue, and Japanese-American Bay Area actor Randall Nakano make his San Francisco Opera debut in the non-singing role of The Monk.
Dream of the Red Chamber is directed by award-winning playwright, director and translator Stan Lai – his first for San Francisco Opera – who is known as one of the most celebrated theatre artists in the Chinese-speaking world. Sets and costumes are by Tim Yip, Academy Award-winning designer of Crouching Tiger – Hidden Dragon, for which he also won a BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) for costume design.
The San Francisco Opera Orchestra, Chorus (Director Ian Robertson) and Dance Corps will be conducted by George Manahan, Director of Orchestral Activities at the Manhattan School of Music, Music Director of the American Composers Orchestra and of the Portland Opera.
Dream of the Red Chamber opens at the War Memorial Opera House on Saturday, September 10, and runs for six performances, until September 29. It is sung in English, with Chinese and English supertitles. For more information visit the San Francisco Opera website www.sfopera.com. Tickets are available online and from 415-864-3330.
All photographs © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera