Monday, September 29, 2008

Hyphenated Identity

Having invoked Daniel Mendelsohn's proposition that "Good people do not, generally speaking, make good subjects for operas" in examining Simon Boccanegra, the first offering in the new San Francisco Opera season, I was reminded of it again while watching the second offering, The Bonesetter's Daughter. Unlikely as it may seem, these two operas share the common theme of reconciliation. However, while the former involves a reconciliation that sustains the strength of the republic of fourteenth-century Genoa, the latter involves the reconciliation of a contemporary "hyphenated American" with her past and, therefore, with her own sense of identity. If today there is no longer any question that the collaboration of Giuseppe Verdi with Arrigo Boito made a good subject for an opera, The Bonesetter's Daughter probably comes closer to the difficulty that Mendelsohn had in mind. One may appreciate reconciliation with one's identity in a novel (and, in the case of The Bonesetter's Daughter, novelist Amy Tan found many readers who did appreciate it); but would that appreciation translate to opera?

As I previously wrote, Mendelsohn based his argument on an Aristotle's approach to the nature of tragedy. Let me reproduce his key premise, as he published it in The New York Review:

Aristotle, in his Poetics, refers to plot as a knot tied by the author (he calls it a dêsis, a "binding up") out of the manifold strands representing competing wills or desires or ideologies; an ugly and worrisome knot that will, in due course, ultimately come undone in a climactic moment of loosening or release of tension (the lysis, or "undoing")—a concept that survives in our term "dénouement."

Mendelsohn invoked this logic in writing about the Philip Glass opera, Satyagraha; and it is actually provides a perfectly reasonable frame for both the life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and the principle of Satyagraha that played such a strong role in how he lived his life. What distinguishes the conception of the opera by Glass and his librettist Constance DeJong is the dénouement, which has less to do with Gandhi's own life and more to do with the passing of the Satyagraha principle over time down to Martin Luther King.

In Tan's case the "knot" is that of the "hyphenated American;" and, in casting her novel as an opera libretto, Tan made this clear in the Scene 1 of Act I, where we encounter the tension of Chinese-Americans and Jewish-Americans, brought together by the protagonist's marriage, gathered at a Chinese restaurant for a birthday celebration. Can this make a good subject for opera? (George Balanchine is famous for once saying there are no mothers-in-law in ballet. How, I wonder, would he have reacted to an opera that puts two mothers-in-law together on the stage?) Having now seen The Bonesetter's Daughter as an opera, I have no trouble answering my rhetorical question in the affirmative.

I suspect that one of the reasons for the success of this work is that the production itself was highly "hyphenated." Composer Stewart Wallace invested considerable time in exposing himself to traditional Chinese music, not so much for the sake of appropriating it but in order to convey his own experience of what it meant to hear those sounds through Western ears. Thus, the suona, a double-reed instrument with the impact of a trumpet, plays a major role, which is as much dramatic as musical; and Chinese percussion instruments deftly coexist with a Western battery. The character of the bonesetter's daughter was sung by Qian Yi, trained in traditional Chinese opera and bringing that characteristic vocal sound to her performance. However, the hyphenation extends beyond the score. Director Chen Shi-Zheng conceived of a staging that combined the techniques of contemporary theater with the traditional skills of Chinese acrobats. The very experience of watching this production is one of hyphenated identity.

All this might sound like too much; and I have to confess that my first sight of the acrobats during the Prologue took me back to Peter Hall's catastrophic staging of Verdi's Macbeth for the Metropolitan Opera, in which he wanted to "fly" the witches and expected them to sing Verdi's score at the same time! However, Chen did not repeat Hall's blunders: Every performer stuck to what (s)he was trained to do; and everything came together like the tiles of a mosaic from which the narrative then emerged. To say too much about that narrative would be to spoil the critical revelation of the plot. If this opera has the staying power of even one of Verdi's lesser efforts (like Macbeth), that revelation may eventually have less surprise, as the story will have become more familiar; but for now those new to the opera should be allowed to let its impact run its course.

Thus I would prefer to put the narrative aside and make an observation about Wallace's "Western ears." As I have frequently written, the music of the present cannot help but be informed by the music of the past. While listening to Wallace's score, I found myself thinking about how Igor Stravinsky had drawn upon his own exposure to indigenous Russian music and turned it into a voice of his own. There are occasional flashes that would indicate that Stravinsky was very much part of Wallace's own listening experience, as was Ligeti, with his capacity for weaving fine textures from a prodigious number of independent voices. (I have to confess that Ligeti may have been on my mind since, once again, I had an opportunity to hear a contrabass clarinet, such as the one Ligeti had used in "Lontano.") Yet there also seemed to be a clear invocation of Maurice Ravel's Ma Mère l'Oye suite in the final scene, almost as if to emphasize that this was a tale more timeless than the Tan novel itself. The score was thus a reflection of Wallace as Western listener as well as a discoverer of traditional Chinese sonorities.

Finally, credit must be given to David Gockley for taking on this project. Since coming to San Francisco, he has added two world premieres to the company's repertoire, Appomattox being the first. He has given us two significantly different operas, each of which is worthy of that aforementioned staying power in a business in which all "product" is highly volatile. We should all be following the San Francisco Opera to see what future seasons will bring.

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