Yesterday afternoon in the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco Opera (SFO) presented the third of six performances of the world premiere production of Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber. Sheng was born in Shanghai in 1955 and only came to live in the United States in 1982. That means that he lived through the entirety of the Cultural Revolution. Once in the United States, Sheng was mentored by Leonard Bernstein; and another one of his teachers was Chou Wen-Chung, a protégé of Edgard Varèse and still a leading authority on the performance of Varèse’s music.
While Sheng’s recent influences have been Western, Dream of the Red Chamber is based on one of what are called the Four Great Classical Novels of China. It was written in the eighteenth century during the Qing Dynasty. Its author, Cao Xueqin, did not live to complete it, having died after completing 80 chapters. At this stage the book was already one of the longest novels in world literature; and it was completed when the publisher Gao E worked with Cheng Weiyuan to add another 40 chapters.
One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is its dual nature. On the surface it is a realistic account of how a well-to-do family tries to maintain and then loses its social status and wealth. The Red Chamber is that portion of a large mansion in which only women are allowed. On the other hand the first word of the title suggests a metaphysical dimension, questioning whether the management and loss of wealth may, in the grander scheme of things, be nothing more than a passing illusion.
Sheng’s opera, whose two acts require somewhat less than three hours of performance time (including an intermission), has a libretto (which Sheng wrote with David Henry Hwang) that clearly distills a single basic plot line from the vast scope of the original text. However, that narrative is framed by a Prologue and coda that honor the metaphysical perspective. This is no mean feat, but both the synopsis printed in the SFO program book and the projected titles provide a clear account of a narrative that abounds with passions and deceptions. Compared to the sorts of convoluted plots one finds in both bel canto and Wagnerian operas, there is a remarkable level of effectively basic storytelling in Sheng’s opera.
Given that the libretto itself was written in English, one might ask fairly whether this is an American opera or a Chinese opera. Sheng has said (several times in my personal experience) that he likes to regard himself as 100% American and 100% Chinese. That is actually a characteristically Oriental perspective. Back when I worked at a research laboratory funded by Fuji Xerox, one of my Japanese colleagues explained that there are Asian systems of logic that reject Aristotle’s law of the excluded middle. This is the principle that any assertion must be either true or false; and there is no “in between” (middle). My colleague explained that there were Asian logics in which an assertion could be true, false, both true and false, or neither true nor false. In those non-Aristotelian terms, one can, indeed, be both 100% American and 100% Chinese; so Sheng was most likely interested in more than simply turning a clever phrase.
From a musical point of view, however, his score is very much a product of Western influences. While some of its grander sonorities may show signs of Bernstein’s mentorship, Sheng’s approaches to counterpoint involve far more elaborate textures; and the superposition of his pitches are rife with dissonant ambiguities when considered in terms of tonal harmony. Bernstein never got close to those unknown regions; but, by the same count, no one would mistake Sheng’s ambiguities from the approaches to dissonance taken by either Varese or Chou. On the other hand the acute listener would be forgiven for recognizing suggestions of other works of twentieth-century modernism that seem to pop up in Sheng’s rich textures. Possible examples may well be excerpts from Igor Stravinsky’s opera The Nightingale (which is also set in China) and some of the ideas of harmonic progression that Alban Berg deployed in his Lulu opera.
Beyond matters of overall texture, Sheng also confronts both performers and listeners with highly demanding vocal lines that have a strong preference for both very high registers and wide intervallic leaps. Most impressive in taking on these vocal demands was soprano Pureum Jo, making her SFO debut in the leading female role of Dai Yu, the flower transformed into a human form to consummate her 3000-year relationship with the stone that sustained her with water, brought to mortal life in the form of Bao Yu (tenor Yijie Shi, also making his SFO debut). Indeed, all the vocalists tended to be uniformly secure in negotiating Sheng’s highly elegant atonal arabesques, often conveying more through the music than they could to the phrases of text that, occasionally, would be distorted by musical phrasing that disrupted the semantic flow.
To be fair, however, much of the text amounts to little more than relatively flat prose. This is surprisingly effective, however, perhaps because, beneath all the exorbitant trappings of the wealthy family at the heart of the opera’s narrative, there rests little more than the shallow banality of day-to-day matters. It might then be fair to say that the heart of this opera lies in the tension between the opulence of the setting, embodied as much in the orchestral writing as in the elaborate sets designed by Tim Yip, and the ordinariness of the mere mortals that play out the core narrative. Stan Lai appeared to appreciate this contrast in his approach to staging, while George Manahan, conducting the SFO Orchestra, was always there to match his musical resources to the visual splendor.
The result is that there is more than enough to enjoy in this intricate interplay of both musical and visual elements with a narrative that, itself, involves the interplay of the supernatural with the ordinariness of life on earth. Unlike some of the European “epic” operas, this is an experience that is likely to leave new impressions with each subsequent encounter. Six is a modest, but still reasonable, number of performances of this new work for a single season; but, on the longer scale of time, this is an opera that is likely to benefit as much (if not more) from subsequent reflection as from the immediacy of “first contact.”