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Editorial

Iconic Chinese Novel Adapted for SF Opera

by Jean Schiffman

The 18th-century epic “Dream of the Red Chamber” asks: Can love survive in a material world?

When San Francisco Opera general director David Gockley first offered a commission to Bright Sheng, the composer hesitated: Gockley wanted him to adapt the iconic "Dream of the Red Chamber," considered one of the four great Chinese novels. The 18th-century Qing Dynasty epic is longer than "War and Peace" and comprises 120 chapters, about 30 main characters and 400 or so others.

An entire academic field, called Redology, exists to discuss the true and deepest meaning of the novel. The first 80 chapters, full of foreshadowing, were written by Cao Xueqin and thought by some to be at least partially autobiographical; the last 40 are believed to have a different author. The possibilities and challenges were daunting.

Sheng had first read the book as a teenager and reread it four or five times over the following years. When offered the commission, he was almost 60, as he explains by phone from Michigan, where he is professor of music at the University of Michigan. He'd occasionally contemplated just such an adaptation but deemed it "too grand to realize." So it was now or never. By then, among other works, he'd composed two one-act operas, plus the full-length "Madame Mao" for Santa Fe Opera; he has been commissioned, and his many works produced, worldwide.

"Dream of the Red Chamber" premieres this month at San Francisco Opera, funded and initiated by the Chinese Heritage Foundation Friends of Minnesota. Composed by Sheng, with English libretto by Sheng and David Henry Hwang, it is directed by Taiwanese theater director Stan Lai, with design by Academy Award-winner Tim Yip.

Sheng decided to focus on the love triangle at the heart of the story, with the political intrigues, essential to the novel, as backdrop. He winnowed the characters down to eight principals, including the non-singing Monk/narrator, plus a male and a female chorus with dancers and supernumeraries.

The novel, full of poetry and imagery, tells of the rise and fall of the aristocratic Jia clan when a daughter first becomes an imperial concubine and then loses favor. At the center are the boy Bao Yu (tenor Yijie Shi) and his soulmate, the sickly Dai Yu (soprano Pureum Jo); the two started out as a "divine stone" and a "crimson pearl flower" that, after three millennia together, longed to be humans. Finally reincarnated as cousins, they are destined to fall in love. But feuding branches of the family intervene, and Bao Yu must marry another cousin, Bao Chai (mezzo-soprano Irene Roberts).

Once he'd settled on the structure-the family rises in the first act, falls in the second-Sheng contacted nationally acclaimed playwright Hwang. The Tony Award-winning writer of "M. Butterfly," Hwang has also written librettos for Philip Glass and other composers, including the libretto for an earlier Sheng musical work, "The Silver River." Growing up in Los Angeles, he'd never read the novel, but he knew of it and at first said, "Oh, no, that's impossible." However, explains the Shanghai-born Sheng, "I lived through the Chinese Cultural Revolution [in Tibet at the time], so my will is stronger than his. I wore him down!"

Hwang agreed-but only if Sheng would be co-librettist. On the phone from Queens, New York, where he is a writer/producer for "The Affair," a Showtime TV series, Hwang says, "When it comes to any adaptation, figuring out the structure is half the job." Sheng had already done that.

After reading the novel in English translation, Hwang worked closely with Sheng, trading drafts back and forth for months, with feedback from Gockley and Lai. Sheng referred to the original Chinese when needed, but Hwang, having written many other period-specific scripts, also knew to translate the archaic language into contemporary speech. After all, the fictional characters are talking in a way that's colloquial for them in their era, albeit in a slightly elevated form, since they are in fact upper class. "One of the interesting challenges," Hwang notes, "is that nobody in this world speaks particularly directly. Nobody comes out and says, 'I love you.' It's poetic, a little more elegant, subtler. Often Bright would say, 'This is too bold, the characters are telling their feelings too directly.'"

All along, Sheng was thinking about the music. "As a composer, you hear music constantly, so you already have a lot of ideas," he says. "For each character, I write the most important arias first, so I can distinguish their personalities, and that gives me some material to work on.

"David's words are so evocative and provocative and very poetic and beautiful at the same time," he continues. "So it was very easy to set to music."

"The reason this makes a good opera," observes Hwang, "is there's love, passion, unrequited love, death-all those good, juicy opera things. What makes it culturally specific in being Chinese is the sort of Buddhist view of the world-the world as an illusion, a dream." As dramatized in the opera's prologue, which takes its text from the novel's metaphysical framework, Stone and Flower, existing in what Hwang calls "some kind of heavenly world," beg the skeptical Monk to transfer them to earth. The metaphysical question, says Hwang, is, can love survive in a material world?

He also sees the drama as metatheatrical: "We live our lives, all the world is a stage, and then our lives pass and we leave the stage. That is the central spiritual, philosophical point of the novel, I believe." Additionally, he and Sheng were captivated by the notion that the author was writing about his own family's fall. "So there's the spiritual side and the material side of it," observes Hwang.

To create the libretto has been a gargantuan project. But, says Sheng, "The biggest surprise for me was how, when you clear everything out of the way, it makes the love triangle very straightforward, and then the story is simple and touching."

Dream of the Red Chamber

Sept. 10 → 29

SF Opera House, 301 Van Ness

(415) 864-3330/

sfopera.com