Lissa Tyler Renaud*
Dream of the Red Chamber. Adapted from the novel by Cao Xueqin. Directed by Stan Lai. San Francisco War Memorial Opera House, California. Final dress rehearsal/press night, Sept. 7, 2016 (World Premiere, Sept. 9).
If I had thought up a project perfect for San Francisco Opera, it might have been Dream of the Red Chamber, their new co-production with the Hong Kong Arts Festival. First of all, the Bay Area tends to be culturally adventurous, so it has a good chance of supporting an original operatic work. The population of San Francisco itself is close to 40% Asian, so it is long past the time when we should be surprised to attend a show based on arguably the most famous work of Chinese literature. We are fully ready for a contemporary, American, multicultural canon, and this culturally Chinese show is a natural addition.
To add to these, as a new opera, this project was, by nature, especially collaborative, just right for the recognizable thread of experimental performance characteristic of Northern California. In fact, director Stan Lai, whose work I have followed for many years, and whose sure hand was in evidence throughout, was even billed simply as the head of a “creative team” in some of the early promotional materials. Besides, the collaborative cohorts of his team constituted something of a “super group”: composer Bright Sheng, MacArthur award recipient; his co-librettist, playwright David Henry Hwang, Tony award winner for M. Butterfly; and Tim Yip, Oscar winner, art direction for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
The night before opening, the various elements of the production had already come together to form a lush, challenging web. The machinations of the mid-eighteenth-century court and its rivaling wealthy families were not immediately easy to follow, but always managed to be exciting and suspenseful anyway, while the climactic moment was duly shocking. The music was deliciously, extravagantly atonal, not perhaps the most obvious idiom for the period of the story, but with a forceful, timeless quality—with references to Bartok and Stravinsky—that was perfect for bridging the classical with the modern. The same can be said of the traditional gongs and cymbals we heard with the Western orchestra. The costumes were somehow both Chinese and not: opulent swirls of silk, elaborate headpieces, unexpected color combinations, but with occasional suggestions of dress from other cultures, real or imagined.
The sets were often like paintings come alive, reminding me of video works I have seen in that vein at San Francisco’s always surprising Asian Museum. Images of a town that floated in from above broke apart and were rearranged; a garden enclosure moved onstage like the Great Birnam Wood of Macbeth; various panels were smoothly wheeled on and off, just the way Edward Gordon Craig hoped, in 1912, that his failed, tipping-over panels would in his Moscow Hamlet. With a theme director Lai has worked with before, here, two ill-fated lovers wandered between stage-width layers of scrim, separated by and yet inextricably connected over vast, incomprehensible Time. This was a truly affecting stage image: we could see how close the two were to each other, but they couldn’t, or only for an instant, fleetingly.
The opera was billed as a “love triangle,” so I am not confident I saw the exact story that was intended. I saw two matriarchs jockeying for position; one bent on marrying their Male Heir to a Rich Girl, the other to the Poor Girl he loves. There was no “love” of the heir (Bao Yu, sung by Yijie Shi) for his wealthy intended (Bao Chai, sung by Irene Roberts). In fact, in the performance I saw, the two-person scene between Bao Yu and Bao Chai served as comic relief. He had heard her praises sung, but when they were finally alone together, she right away started in on “changing” him: he should drink his liquids warm, not cold; he should have this kind of job, not that. A real scold!
Later, a new ad was released, saying the story is of a young man who has to choose between Duty (marry the incompatible rich girl) and Love, and this seems to me closer to what I saw. Still, I wonder if people who knew the original novel (pub. 1791) had a certain advantage. For example, I was surprised when Irene Roberts took her curtain call before Hyona Kim, who played the matriarch trying to solve her financial woes by marrying Roberts’ character into her family. Kim had far more stage time and, with her complex portrayal and wondrous voice, was effectively the primary mover of the plot. But this version of Red Chamber is just one storyline extracted from an epic with hundreds of characters, and audience members familiar with the whole were apparently making a mental adjustment, adding weight to the role of the moneyed, daughter-in-law-to-be.
Also requiring a viewer’s adjustment: the character of Dai Yu (sung by Pureum Jo)—the lovely, penniless cousin—was introduced as a sickly orphan with a romantic cough, but her illness proved phantom, and she went on to sing ear-bendingly, ferociously demanding music at magnificent volume. Of course, at the opera we know we might find the teenage Juliet sung by an improbably large, mature diva. But, in this case, the matter of Dai Yu’s fragile health, so critical to the story, needed textual support.
Librettists Sheng and Hwang had their work cut out for them in order to satisfy aficionados of the most famous of Chinese novels, while keeping the story accessible to everyone else. In one of the advance video trailers, they both describe balking before agreeing to join the project. In any case, the libretto is the element of this opera that will most benefit from continued development. Firstly, the natural stress in the lines to be sung was almost always fighting with the accent in the musical phrase. This was very tiring to the ear. Secondly, the lines had the singers communicating in Chinese-inflected English, as if all the characters in the story sounded foreign-born to each other: a puzzling choice indeed.
The singers were, of course, awe-inspiring, venturing vocally into realms fraught with difficulties and never wavering. I often wish, at both the opera and the theatre, that there had been more time in rehearsal to bring all the performers under one roof, as it were, so it were not quite so obvious that they all have different training. Here, too, we heard a range of techniques that were sometimes complementary and, at others, jarring. Some were singer-actors; some, actor-singers. Some focused on clear tone and enunciation; others on timbre and size. Some sang vowels, some consonants. We can dream of more consistency among performers of dramas both spoken and sung. In the meantime, many a sublime moment is achieved.
Inherently, writing about a new opera means writing about a work in progress. In the U.S., a new production is too often a sketching-in of what the collaborators have managed to come to without enough rehearsal time. In this context, it must be said: an explanatory frame story, though lovely to look at, has not yet gelled; a modern dance dream sequence at the beginning was not stylistically connected to the rest of the show; and the chorus never achieved dramatic purpose.
In truth, it gets harder and harder to look past the disparity between the privilege on display inside the opera house and the despair just outside. The surrounding area is populated with the homeless, many of them mentally ill, and the streets are far from pristine. Nevertheless, eavesdropping after the show in the women’s room, where important reviews are given: “Marvelous!” “I loved it!” “I hope I can see it two or three more times!”
Indeed, a big part of the pleasure of seeing a new show is knowing it will continue to take shape. The new show you are watching now may well become a classic later. With this incarnation of Dream of the Red Chamber, San Francisco Opera and the collaborative artists have made a timely contribution to both our local and international cultural communities.
*Lissa Tyler Renaud (M.A Directing; Ph.D. Theatre History/Criticism) is director of InterArts Training, based in Oakland, California. She has taught, lectured, and published widely on acting, directing, voice, body alignment, dramatic theory and the early European avant-garde throughout the U.S., at major theatre institutions throughout Asia, and in Mexico, Russia and Sweden. Recipient of Ford Foundation and National Science Council grants, she is an award-winning actress, a director and popular recitalist. She was founding editor of Critical Stages 2007-14, and continues as an editor, board member, and contributor. Book publications include The Politics of American Actor Training (Routledge 2009/2011) and an invited chapter in the Routledge Companion to Stanislavsky, 2013. Renaud has been Editor for the Wuzhen Theatre Festival, China since 2014, and is a longtime senior writer for Scene4 international cultural magazine.