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Ionarts in Santa Fe: Tan Dun's Tea

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
The overture begins with long, unison bass tones, followed by hazy water-sounding string tones by three players gracefully spinning their way through the audience with unique instruments. Act I, titled “Water, Fire,” is set in an incense-filled tea garden of a tranquil Kyoto monastery where time seems to stand still. Three girls at first appear to be washing their hands in large, elevated glass bowls on opposite sides of the stage, which turn out to be amplified for percussive effect. The Chorus of Monks enters singing long notes, similar to the bass sounds that have continued in the orchestra. The three on-stage percussionists (Haruka Fujii, Chihiro Shibayama, and Yuri Yamashita) begin striking the water rhythmically – the work’s first rhythm.

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.

Other Articles:

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)
Scene two is set ten years earlier in the Chinese Emperor’s palace, where in elaborate costume Princess Lan (Kelly Kaduce, metaphor of love) and the Prince (Roger Honeywell, metaphor of anger) are performing The Monkey King, a shadow-puppet opera for their father, the Emperor (Christian van Horn, metaphor of tradition/culture). The shadows are seen through the rice paper windows of a striking red box now centered on stage. As wind instruments join the texture, Seikyo interrupts the puppet show and soon asks the Emperor to choose a theme to display his skill at poetry in order to win the Princess’s hand. He chooses tea, and Seikyo replies about the sensuousness and beauty of tea, with a long melisma on the final word “tea”. With growing string textures, the Lady of Ritual (Nancy Maultsby, metaphor tea/messenger for spirit) enters in Native American mini-headdress to prepare the tea, which they enjoy to repeated gong and percussion rhythms. From this point, the plot thickens with Italianate fervor, though Asian delivery (i.e., jealousy), in a romantic scene during which dancers create ying-yang motions, dueling, accidental death, etc., and concludes back at the monastic tea garden.

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)

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