Kelly Kaduce, Roger Honeywell, Haijing Fu, Christian Van Horn, and Nancy Maultsby in Tea: A Mirror of Soul
Santa Fe Opera, photo by Ken Howard © 2007
The North American premiere of Chinese-born Tan Dun’s opera Tea: A Mirror of Soul at Santa Fe Opera proved a remarkable success. With the roots of the opera more Asian than Western -- slowly building to an extreme intensity as one long phrase and containing attributes to what one may find at Tokyo’s Kabuki-za Theatre or the Vietnamese Hat Boi Opera, recently in D.C. as part of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival -- Tan Dun has convincingly furthered his stated aim to introduce Eastern opera to the West in his own personalized way. He made the point recently in the New York Times, in reference to his most recent opera, The First Emperor: “Opera will no longer be a Western form, as it is no longer an Italian form” (June 26, 2005).
Tea is an exotic commodity that among other things motivated the British to instigate the Opium Wars in the 19th century, but it fails to trigger the American imagination beyond the famous “Tea Party” of 1773, or something processed in a bag. In Asia, tea’s traditions, both ceremonial (considered an art one must study for years in order to serve) and religious (having been brought to Japan from China by Buddhist monks), have exalted tea to metaphoric heights. In an interview with the Executive Producer of Tokyo’s Suntory Hall on the occasion of the opera’s 2002 world premiere in concert form, Tan Dun said:
In my research for Tea I traveled around Japan and China, and learned that Japanese Tea is a ‘mirror of the soul.’ When I was in the southern regions of China, which is of course the home of tea, I had the opportunity to interview an eminent nun. She always presents to her first-time guests an empty tea bowl, and on such occasions she herself also puts an empty tea bowl to her lips, as if to drain it of its contents. In this very action her spiritual world-view becomes vividly apparent. For me, there was something greatly enlightening about the spirit of Chinese tea as made manifest in her, and about the spirit of Japanese tea.
Kelly Kaduce as Princess Lan in Tea: A Mirror of Soul
Santa Fe Opera, photo by Ken Howard © 2007
Seikyo (Haijing Fu, metaphor of discovery/philosophy), a monk and the main character, sings, “though the bowl is empty, scent glows; though shadow is gone, dream grows,” and slowly drinks from an empty bowl. Startlingly to the ears, the pitch of the bass drone changes as the upper-strings begin sliding around in unison, which is a typical orchestration found in Asian, Arab, Irish, and Old-Time North American music. From this point, the three on-stage percussionists place brass disks into the water bowls creating vibrations by rubbing them with something red; shake long, water-filled glass tubes filled with glass beads rhythmically; and later let water drop from modest height through pasta strainers into the bowls. This takes place during Seikyo’s slow sliding between notes in rich baritone voice, with the monastic stillness never disturbed.
The Mirror has Two Faces (Out West Arts, August 11)
Scott Cantrell, Santa Fe Opera's 'Tea' is a tepid brew (Dallas Morning News, August 6)
Matthew Westphal, Photo Journal: Tan Dun's Tea in Its North American Premiere (Playbill Arts, July 26)
Craig Smith, Smoke and mirrors and SFO (Santa Fe New Mexican, July 22)
all ur base r belong 2 TEA: American Premiere at the Santa Fe Opera (Opera Chic, July 22)
Act II, titled “Paper,” utilizes multiple large hanging rice paper sheets that when shaken, sharply create the sound of wind. Act III, titled “Ceramic, Stones,” utilizes the Chorus of Monks tapping stones together rhythmically to build intensity preceding the Princess’s murder by her brother. These techniques were also reinforced by the three capable on-stage percussionists.
Overall, at just over two hours in length, the opera was very well sung, and each character embodied their assigned metaphors. Librettists Tan Dun and Xu Ying’s sparing use of language increased the audience’s reliance on sound to understand context, something that conductor Lawrence Renes did an excellent job conveying. If you did not care for the Met’s world premiere of Tan Dun’s The First Emperor last season, see this production.
Performances repeat on August 9, 15, and 23.
World premiere of Tan Dun's Tea: A Mirror of Soul (2002), Suntory Hall, Tokyo (released on DVD)