Chinese epic gets grand opera treatment

San Francisco Opera faces a seemingly daunting challenge with its world premiere of composer Bright Sheng and co-librettist David Henry Hwang’s “Dream of the Red Chamber,” which is based on a sprawling novel of classic Chinese literature by Cao Xueqin.

“Chinese dreams ­­and Chinese modern art are different from the West,” says Tim Yip, set and costume designer for the opera, which opens Saturday at the War Memorial Opera House.

Yip, an Oscar winner for his design in “Crouching Tiger-Hidden Dragon,” adds, “So when we want to put Western audiences into an oriental dream and aesthetics, we need to compromise, or we have to work with the Western language. ‘Dream of the Red Chamber’ contains mystery and Chinese poetics, forms, colors, meanings and symbolism. It is very Chinese. At the same time, the opera is based on a Western tradition.”

The opera, which has an English libretto (and a supertitles display in English and Chinese) chronicles the story of a family dynasty fraught by socio-economic drama and riven by a love triangle — essentially a Chinese “War and Peace.” And even though the vast novel was condensed into two acts and attempts to bridge a Sino-English linguistic and cultural divide, it tries to remain true to its Chinese origins.

The production introduces modern multimedia techniques such as projections, prompting the question of whether such methods distract from or compromise the integrity of the original story.

But the production team argues that the use of modern technology represents adherence to theatrical tradition.

“Theater practitioners since ancient times have always gone to whatever new technology is available for use on stage,” says the opera’s multiple-award-winning director Stan Lai.

Lai also asks and then philosophically answers the question: How much leeway does opera have in suspending audiences’ disbelief when not striving for realism, but instead re-creating a form of reality led by music? In the case of “Dream of the Red Chamber,” it’s a blend of lyricism and traditional Chinese sounds.

“The answers, to me, are all based on what the artists hope to achieve on stage,” Lai says.

“How one uses multimedia elements depends on how one conceives of a production. Should the multimedia element become a character in itself, meaning something that performers react to? Should it be acknowledged to be what it is, becoming, in essence, a Brechtian device? Or should it be subtly layered into the whole production, not bringing attention on itself? We have chosen a subtle approach. I don’t think our choice has so much to do with the fact that we are dealing with an opera based on classic literature, but more with the nature of Bright Sheng’s music and David Henry Hwang’s libretto.”

IF YOU GO
Dream of the Red Chamber
Presented by San Francisco Opera
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 10, Sept. 13, Sept. 23, Sept. 27 and Sept. 29; 2 p.m. Sept. 18
Tickets: $26 to $417
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com

James Ambroff-Tahan

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