Tan libretto's soaring sounds come with soaring costs

Opera is expensive in general, but the cost of new productions and commissioned works goes through the roof. San Francisco Opera general director David Gockley estimates the cost of commissioning and producing “The Bonesetter’s Daughter” at $1.3 million. (Elements of the complex set, such as walkways in a Hong Kong Harbor scene, however, are said to have cost that much by themselves.)

It was Gockley who launched the project less than four years ago, when he realized the 2001 book “has legs” to become an opera, when he witnessed “how revered and loved Amy Tan is,” and how fitting the War Memorial Opera House would be for this complex, gripping, highly personal story about the immigrant experience.

The composer of the opera is Stewart Wallace; it will be his fifth such work.

Wallace is from a rock-and-blues background. He sang as a cantor in a Texas synagogue, became a prolific author of classical works and was a longtime collaborator with Gockley at the Houston Grand Opera. He has been familiar to local audiences as well, since his opera, “Harvey Milk” — co-commissioned by Gockley for Houston — was performed in the War Memorial in 1996.

The dual role of Ruth and young LuLing is sung by Zheng Cao, who was born in China and has a significant American career that began as a member of S.F. Opera’s Merola Opera Program and an Adler fellow; Precious Auntie is Chinese opera star Qian Yi, who is making her debut in a Western opera. Chang the Coffin Maker is Hao Jiang Tian, a singer from China with an extensive opera career, including 26 roles at the Met during the last two decades.

Wallace is commingling his “always tonal, but occasionally dissonant” music with the sounds of a Chinese opera percussion section, two suonas (a double-reed trumpet), one of which is played by Beijing rock singer and instrumentalist Wu Tong, who also sings multiple roles. Wallace is not trying to write “Chinese music,” but rather “writing music in my own language,” including the “timbre and texture” of Chinese instruments.

“In the opening Dragon Dance, I was trying to re-create my first reaction to Chinese opera, where the stage is a container that can barely hold the energy vibrating inside,” Wallace told S.F. Opera Magazine.

Much of the production is amplified, which, Gockley said, is used only for contemporary operas, not classical works, leaving the opera house, one hopes, as the last refuge of the human voice.

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