Amy Tan: The opera's backbone

If you are among the few who are unfamiliar with the writings of San Francisco author Amy Tan, remedy that woeful omission and begin the easy way, by looking up her online account of dealing with Lyme disease.

All of Tan is on her Web site, in a dramatic, gripping, nakedly personal, detailed, illuminating account of a serious illness. All, that is, except for an essential element of Tan’s consistent blending of the inner and outer worlds — being a first-generation American of Chinese parentage, a theme running through her works.

Now move on from the Web site to her novel “The Bonesetter’s Daughter” and watch how its clear-eyed, masterly description of horrendous events besetting characters drawn on Tan’s own family members in post-World War II China parallels treatment of the deeply personal experience of neuro­borreliosis, told as if standing outside of herself:

“Hallucinations began, what I now realize were likely simple partial seizures, the result of lesions on my brain. I saw people walking into my room, two girls jumping rope, numbers spinning on an odometer, a fat poodle hanging from the ceiling. I also had strange episodes in which I behaved strangely but had no recollection of what I had done as reported to me by others.”

Intensive antibiotic treatment — coming long after Lyme disease should have been diagnosed — eventually restored Tan’s health and ended rumors prompted by her erratic behavior during the illness. She is now helping to prepare the first major Chinese-American opera to be produced in the United States, the San Francisco Opera’s world premiere of “The Bonesetter’s Daughter” on Saturday.

Tan, 56, was born in Oakland, but her writing — from “The Joy Luck Club” to “The Kitchen God’s Wife” — is suffused with bicultural experience, keen awareness of her roots, the problems and rewards of living in both, and being stretched between two cultures.
“Bonesetter” is about family secrets, which Tan believes to be deadly important: “What is yet untold in a family history holds the power to destroy or heal.” In a highly unusual move, Tan herself has adapted the libretto from her novel.

The daughter of the title is Ruth, a San Francisco writer, similar to Tan herself in many ways. She lives with her elderly mother, LuLing, who was raised in China by a servant called Precious Auntie. After the first part of the book (and the first act of the opera) taking place in San Francisco, the bulk of the novel takes some 200 thrilling pages to sort out the story of LuLing and Precious Auntie in war-torn China.

In the opera, their secret — and how the disfigured, tragic Precious Auntie becomes a beautiful ghost — unfolds quickly, necessarily without the rich details of the novel. Either before or after seeing the opera, read the book, both for the pleasure of it and to understand the abbreviated, simplified version on stage.

Tan — a self-confessed “failure as a pianist” — had minimal knowledge of Chinese music, but in preparing for the opera, she has encountered sounds that became deeply meaningful to her.

“I realized that all this music that I thought was just empty ritual was actually very much alive with emotion and drama,” she said. “It was not just seeing where the words and music interact, but also what parts of the story could be felt in the music alone.”

“Bonesetter” is Tan’s first opera, but she has a long-standing musical involvement as a member of a “literary garage band” called the Rock Bottom Remainders. Other band members include authors Stephen King, Dave Barry, Roy Blount Jr., Matt Groening (of “The Simpsons”), Kathi Kamen Goldmark and Scott Turow. Don’t be fooled by the whimsy of the enterprise; the band has reportedly raised $2 million for literacy programs.

Amy Tan facts

– Born in Oakland in 1952 to immigrant parents from China
– Earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at San Jose State University
– Married Lou DeMattei in 1974
– Novels written: “The Joy Luck Club,” “The Kitchen God’s Wife,” “The Hundred Secret Senses,” “The Bonesetter’s Daughter” and “Saving Fish from Drowning”
– Memoir: “The Opposite of Fate”
– Children’s books: “The Moon Lady” and “Sagwa”
– Was co-producer and co-screenwriter for film adaptation of “The Joy Luck Club”
– Appeared as an animated version of herself on “The Simpsons”
– Has suffered from neuroborreliosis (a late stage of Lyme disease) since 1999
– Performed as narrator with the San Francisco Symphony and Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, playing the original score for “Sagwa”
– Plays with the literary garage band the Rock Bottom Remainders, whose members include Stephen King, Dave Barry and Scott Turow
– Lives in San Francisco


If you go

The Bonesetter’s Daughter

War Memorial Opera House, seven performances, Saturday-Oct. 3
Opera by Stewart Wallace, libretto by Amy Tan (from her novel)
Conductor: Steven Sloane
Stage director: Chen Shi-Zheng
Sets: Walt Spangler
Costumes: Han Feng
Cast: Zheng Cao (Ruth Young Kamen), Ning Liang (LuLing Liu Young), Qian Yi (Precious Auntie), Hao Jiang Tian (Chang the Coffin Maker), James Maddalena (Art Kamen), Catherine Cook (Arlene Kamen) and Valery Portnov (Marty Kamen)
Tickets: $15-$260
Contact: (415) 864-3330,

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