starlady: the philosopher's garden (obligatory china icon)
[personal profile] starlady
So I went with [ profile] kwviola to see the Opera Company of Philadelphia put on Tan Dun's Tea: A Mirror of Soul at the Academy of Music on Sunday. It was…hmm. On one level, I really liked it. On another, it was unlike any other opera I've seen in ways both great and strange. K talked about it (including the story of the percussionists trying out their drums--clay pots--in Home Depot during the snowstorm) here at her journal.

Tea was commissioned for the Suntory Hall in Tokyo, where it premiered in 2002. It tells the story of Prince Seikyo of Japan, who asks for the hand of Princess Lan of China and who must journey with her in search of the 茶經/茶经/Chajing/Book of Tea in order to prove the prince her brother's claim to possess the book a lie.

As one can hopefully guess from even this brief summary, the plot is a rich melange of Chinese and Japanese history, actual cultural artifacts (the Chajing really was written by a monk named Lu Yu in the eighth century CE), opera tropes, and literary quotations, principally from The Journey to the West. Needless to say I enjoyed very much that Seikyo narrates the story from a temple in Kyoto, and for the most part I was able to let the willful anachronism of mixing high Tang in China with the rise of the culture of tea and of Zen in Japan, which didn't really take off until the medieval period (sidenote: most of what's commonly called "traditional" Japanese culture is medieval in origin; the Heian period is doubly distant from the contemporary era), slide. (Needless to say, [ profile] kwviola and I kept up a running string of Saiyuki jokes during the pre-performance opera talk.)

I really enjoyed the quotation and transformation of elements of Journey to the West in the opera, actually; Lan's brother the prince is associated throughout with the Monkey King, and by the end of the opera the familiar lines from the story have been given a chilling new twist. I also really liked Tan's incorporation of the elements of tea, and the five elements theory, into the structure of the opera itself: Act I.1 is water (rebirth), I.2 is fire (anger); Act II is paper (wind); Act III.1 is ceramic (earth, fate, fatality), and III.2 is stones (metal). And an Italian opera trope, that of tenor = hero, baritone = villain, is also turned neatly on its head. There's a lot in the music that's fairly radical, actually, including giving the baritone lots of high As, as well as giving the tenor a whole slew of high Cs, and then making the baritone drop 2.5 octaves to the E below low C, just to quote some more factoids from the opera talk. And the incorporation of a lot of other stuff, both in instrumentation and in the score itself, is radical too (more on that below).

At this point I should mention that the singers were uniformly excellent, particularly Kelly Kaduce as Lan and Fu Haijing, who originated the role of Seikyo in Tokyo and has sung it in almost every performance since. (Side note: Why couldn't someone be arsed to teach Roger Honeywell, who played the prince, how to pronounce "Tao" and "Tang"?) But the real stars of the show were the musicians, particularly the three onstage percussionists, Fujii Haruka, Yamashita Yuri, and Shibayama Chihiro--they played instruments including clay drums, superballs, water, colanders, and many other things I couldn't even name, and they all sounded fantastic. Indeed, Tan's score incorporates many Chinese instruments and musical techniques, as well as elements of Tibetan chanting and Japanese sutra recitation; at one point we could see the cello players beating their hands on their fingerboards where the neck meets the body, and in the second act the score calls for all the musicians to rattle their scores in time, which is just awesome. (Indeed, a lot of the onstage musicmaking owes something to the invisible onstage stagehands of Japanese theater.) Unquestionably, the music is the best part; it's amazing, and uncompromising in its refusal to choose between Chinese and Western idioms. The answer is: both!

The opera itself…well, the libretto is in English, and as much as I love opera I almost prefer it in other languages, since opera is so inherently OTT that I honestly have trouble completely suspending my disbelief without the language barrier. That said, the libretto is really interesting. Tea is clearly being used--not quite as a metaphor, but as a proxy, as a metonym--for blood (and family ties) in act 1; in act 2 it is a metonym for love and sex, and in act 3 (which elevates the one-sidedly incestuous subtext between Lan and her brother to text) tea and blood and family and love and sex are all conflated with each other, with predictably tragic results. At the same time The Book of Tea itself is being used metonymically for all these things, and is conflated in with all of them at the end too.

Really the crux of the whole thing is the second act; acts one and three could almost be, in their outlines, out of any number of operas, but act two is frankly mystical in a way that I'm not sure I've ever seen performed: Lan and Seikyo discuss (the philosophy of) tea with each other for the entire time. But at the same time as they are discussing tea (and actually quoting the Chajing at points), the libretto is also deploying the discussion of tea as a series of frankly sexual metaphors, matching Lan and Seikyo consummating their relationship. I'm still not sure what to make of it.

And then in the middle of act 3 I had a revelation: opera is like Supernatural, it runs on dead women. No, really. Tosca? She dies! Wozzeck? She dies! The Rape of Lucrece? She dies! Tea? She dies! And those are just the operas I've seen in the past year (well, okay, she doesn't' die in Fidelio, but I'd submit that the lack of people dying is part of why Fidelio is a lesser opera). And yes I can think of other exceptions, but all in all they just prove the rule. And…I'm really sort of disgusted, actually. I think one of the reasons I tend to prefer modern (and comic) opera is that there's less chance of dead women. After I saw Lucrece I said I wanted someone to write the epic gay opera of the 21stC; after seeing Tea I want someone to write the epic female hero opera of the 21stC.

The production was that put on by the Santa Fe Opera in 2006, and all in all I liked it, but it was a persistent annoyance to me that the color symbolism was completely incoherent. When the Emperor walked on wearing orange I thought, "Okay, well, at least no one else is wearing yellow!" and then ten minutes later the mistress of ceremonies walked on wearing a red cape-thing with bright yellow trim and I wanted to shake someone. I know that I know a lot more about these subjects than the average U.S.-ian (and even so I'm so weak on China, it's dispiriting), but how hard is it to know, really, that only the emperor could wear yellow? How easy would it have been to put him in yellow instead of orange? And I'm not even going to talk about the chorus wearing wimples, so that we thought they were nuns rather than monks until they started singing. Wimples, WTF. I suppose it's because companies can't legitimately ask chorus members to shave their heads. But seriously, there's got to be a better solution than wimples.

Afterward we had sushi at Raw and gelato at Capogiro. I can't recommend Capogiro highly enough. And I really want to see Chinese opera--particularly Peking opera, though there are many other regional styles.

If anyone has an extra ticket for the OCP/Curtis production of Barber's Antony and Cleopatra this month, talk to me.
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