Opera as a living art form is not exactly an endangered species, but its health is undoubtedly fragile. To a large extent its pulse stems from new conceptions of old masterpieces rather than new, original works. This may not be surprising, since the composition of a modern opera that scores points on accessibility, popularity, high musical quality, and novelty must be the most challenging project a composer/librettist team can undertake.
Most operas ever created are of little value; only the most outstanding operas (and some lesser ones by composers who have a few such masterpieces to their name) survive in the repertoire. It should therefore not be surprising that most contemporary operas, too, leave much to be desired, are either flawed, mediocre, or downright awful. But since there are so few contemporary operas that come to the wider attention of the public, that rate of failure vs. success is hard to stomach. One wishes them to succeed, but the offerings are such that they can be safely crossed off the list of future opera house staples. Tan Dun’s Metropolitan Opera-commissioned The First Emperor is one such opera.
Martin Bernheimer, The First Emperor, Metropolitan Opera, New York (Financial Times, December 22)
Manuela Hoelterhoff, Domingo Sings World Premiere of `First Emperor' at the Met (Bloomberg, December 22)
Martin Steinberg, 'First Emperor' - Fascinating but Flawed (Washington Post, December 22)
Mark Swed, Tan Dun mixes an East-West 'Emperor' (Los Angeles Times, December 23)
Anthony Tommasini, Ambitious Chinese saga 'The First Emperor' premieres at the Met (New York Times, December 23)
Philip Kennicott, The Familiar Kingdom Of 'The First Emperor' (Washington Post, December 23)
David Patrick Stearns, Tan Dun's 'First Emperor' big on style, short on substance (Philadelphia Inquirer, December 23)
Jeremy Eichler, East meets West in ambitious 'First Emperor' (Boston Globe, December 23)
Jay Nordlinger, A 'First Emperor' With Lessons To Learn (New York Sun, December 26)
Eric Myers, The First Emperor (Variety, December 26)
Alex Ross, Stone Opera (The New Yorker, January 8)
Peter G. Davis, Cold Fusion (New York Classical & Dance)
An Unamplified Voice | Out West Arts | Wellsung
Deborah Solomon, Composing a Life (New York Times, December 3)
--interview with Tan Dun
Barry Singer, A Quiet Girl (Opera News, January 2007)
--interview with Elizabeth Futral
Scarlet Cheng, Director with a Midas Touch (Los Angeles Times, January 2)
--on director Zhang Yimou
Once the hype (as a world premiere at the Met always brings with it), hipness, and star power dissipate from the project, it will run on fumes and fall out of favor. It might get more chances than Democracy and Shadowtime (it will feature on the LA Opera season in 2008, thanks to Plácido Domingo), fewer than Sophie’s Choice… but its footprint on the opera landscape will most likely be shallow.
If The First Emperor does not offer the direction of 21st-century opera, it is not for lack of ambition. “What is the music that can harmonize Heaven and Earth and Man?” is the question that Tan Dun and his Emperor in the opera are posing. Neither delivers or gets the answer. Tan Dun stipulates “It’s not about being Chinese or Western, about being old or new… my favorite formula now is 1 + 1 = 1.” Reading that might have been a bad omen, since the ‘formula’ might be mildly thought-provoking – but is, of course, plain wrong. The First Emperor uncomfortably straddles the new and the old, Western and Chinese, and there is no synthesis in sight or earshot during the three hours it lasts.
The First Emperor deals with Qin Shi Huang (Plácido Domingo), ‘Father of China’ (also responsible for those terra cotta soldiers) and uniter of its separate provinces who seeks a unifying anthem for his forged empire. He does so amid affairs of dramatic love, betrayal, and death. Unfortunately the love occurs between his childhood friend, the composer Gao Janli (Paul Groves) and his daughter (Elizabeth Futral, well known to Washington audiences) who is inconveniently promised to Qin’s master general, Wang, who conquered the other provinces and, in the process, killed the composers mother and enslaved his people. The composer agrees to write the anthem after his hunger strike is broken by (the crippled) Princess Yueyang’s mouth-to-mouth feeding attempts. (Love at first regurgitation, it seems.) Princess Yueyang is so inspired by that love that she starts to walk again. The fact that his daughter’s behavior forces him break his promise to his general, however, sours Emperor Qin’s joy over her rehabilitation and the to-be-composed anthem – and in a chain of rambling events leads to the deaths of Yueyang, the general, and Gao Janli who bites his tongue off and spits it at the Emperor before being slain. He gets his ultimate revenge by having made the anthem a “Slave Song” in which he mourns the fate of the conquered peoples of China.
Tan Dun’s research for the opera took him to ancient Chinese music, singing styles, and instruments from which he creates a novel sound for the opera – inspired by Tan Dun’s vision of ancient music, rather than what that music might actually have sounded like... it is “his own musical language rooted in tradition”. On the vocal front it “occurred to [Tan Dun] that ancient Chinese and Italian music sounded surprisingly close to one another” whereupon he thought that he “could combine the expressive power of Chinese singing with the long lines of Italian opera,” hoping for a “fresh and exciting” result. That noble and intriguing goal is somewhat undermined by the fact that The First Emperor is sung in English, a difficult language for opera to sound natural in (much less emphasize long, Italianate, lines), and employed (instead of Chinese or even Italian) to the detriment of the opera.
Those ancient sounds clash – blatantly – with overtly Western tunes that range from Broadway Musical moments to film music with downright hackneyed elements. As the novelty rubs off the ancient sound-world (and it does, over the course of three hours), it is replaced by mild annoyance. (Repetition is not used as a composition tool here, it seems; repetitiveness is merely a result.) I am afraid that the second or third outing for this work (Co-producer LA Opera is next), all-important though that is for a modern work, will not enhance the appreciation; only the irritation. That feeling is exacerbated by the occasional outbreak of conventionalisms that are transparently designed to ‘please’ and provide ‘greatest hits’ moments in the way that some of the worst Puccini is. (I think in particular of the ‘Hymn to Florence” aria, “Firenze è come un albero fiorito,” in Gianni Schicchi.) In those moments, Tan Dun leaves the quality of his innovative orchestration in other parts well behind: epic sweeps of surging, homogenous brass combine with borderline-cheesy vocal and choral turns and phrases, accompanied by terrible or terribly tried lyrics. “Locked in love’s embrace,” “My Lord, please master your temper,” and “Can a stone cry? Can a turtle fly?” are so bad (or clichéd), they belie the fact that the libretto was composed in English (the National Book Award-winning novelist Ha Jin is Tan Dun’s co-author), rather than having been translated from the Chinese. Miss Saigon is closer here than Madame Butterfly.
That the music does not seem to fit the words only contributes to the clunky, awkward feel: Giving three notes to the only syllable of “does” or four to “he” is a difficult task to pull off, after all. The tendency to dramatize words with an accelerated ff before a near immediate decay swallows its last letters might be taken from traditional Chinese singing (or calligraphy) but strikes me more of average modernist Western writing for the voice (of flute). The haltingly breathed “I . took . my . own . life” that the appearing ghost of the unfortunate Princess Yueyang declaims after her long monologue near the end of the second and last act is gratuitously undramatic, especially as it comes as a surprise to no one in the audience. “Near the end” is not quite accurate, actually, because although the end of the opera seems in sight at that point, it manages to go on, somewhat inconclusively, for another half hour; possibly the worst 30 minutes of the opera. The second scene of the second act drags itself to the conclusion slower than the princess’ dead appearance, backwards, from the stage. The showdown between the characters of King and composer spirals toward the unbearable – enhanced by the fragmented, shapeless dialogue. (After the composer's tongue-biting last words the Emperor proceeds with a monologue that isn’t much better.)
If this sounds like The First Emperor is rather meritless, it does so because the visual element and the singing have not yet been considered. Indeed, I can’t imagine anyone gaining much from an audio-recording of this opera. As theater, however, it works… somewhat. The staging (House of Flying Daggers director Zhang Yimou, Academy Award®-winning costume designer Emi Wada) features a simple, ingenious set-design (Fan Yue) that provides many delights to the eye (and distracts the ear). Steep bleachers extend from stage front to back. Suspended gray stone-blocks dangle from above and offer the chorus room to line up behind, as an army, carry these blocks as slaves, mimic court-entourage on the Great Wall, or sing as retinue in the (disheveled) palace. Lighting turns the bleachers into a prison for the dancers (slaves) behind it; has characters appear and disappear like ghosts (or spies) during the love scene. The costumes are colorful (to a fault in the last “Anthem” scene where the chorus in bright dresses looks like a row of carnival costumes hung out to dry in a laundry commercial), the choreography seamless. Principle dancer Dou Dou Huang used some of the moments during which the drama lagged to very impressive effect. Court musicians – zheng player (the instrument is a Chinese zither) Qi Yao, a chorus of drummers (using stones instead of sticks), and ceramic bowl players all added atmosphere – visually and acoustically.
On the level of the staging was the singing… led by a (surprisingly) vigorous, fresh, Plácido Domingo who had no trouble filling the Met’s round with his voice. The role having been written for him, it was well suited to what is essentially a high baritone now. Elizabeth Futral as the Princess had to master a taxing part and did it with distinction, high leaps and all. Paul Groves, Shaman Michelle DeYoung, and Susanne Mentzer, the King’s wife, faultlessly served their parts. Bass Hao Jiang (General Wang) had some problem with his (very) low notes; Yin-Yang master Wu Hsing Kuo, the only Chinese singing/speaking part and a performance-art element that contributed to the general ‘Turandot goes Edward Scissorhands – The Musical’ feel.
The First Emperor is an event necessary for opera, desirable and commendable – entirely (or at least mostly) unrelated to the achieved result. Peter Gelb, the new Met GM (Joseph Volpe commissioned the work many years ago), is absolutely right when he says that “commissioning new works from contemporary composers [I wonder what other composers you could commission operas from - jfl] (needs to be) at the heart of the Met’s efforts to keep opera alive and in the mainstream. (…) Mozart, Verdi, Wagner and Puccini alone cannot sustain the artform in perpetuity.” Indeed, we need more such premieres, more stabs at 21st-century opera – even if in this instance the result was disheartening more than anything else.
The future of opera will take a genius to figure out – because at this point it is scarcely imaginable what could fulfill the criteria mentioned in the first paragraph. Even the better attempts I have seen so far, live or on DVD (L’amour de Loin, The Palace, Susannah), demand a good deal of charity, effort, and interest to make their impact… to entertain. Light opera has become the Musical, ever since Gilbert & Sullivan, with the musical quality reliably low. Tan Dun, amid this, has delivered something that teeters between ‘ambitious near-miss’ and ‘valiant failure’… he certainly hasn’t delivered the future of opera. The curious opera lovers should take a look and listen at The First Emperor anyway, of course. Either at the Met (January 5th, 9th, 13th, 22nd, or 25th) or at a movie theater near you which will show The First Emperor (as well as four other Met productions this season) live (!) in high-definition from the Met. You can access the list of participating theaters at www.bigscreenconcerts.com.