APOWERFUL new wave of opera combining Chinese and Western music and drama and written by Chinese composers, many of whom have immigrated to the U.S., has swept much of America, as well as parts of Europe and Asia, in the last 15 years. That it has mostly bypassed the major opera companies on our coast may be evidence of nothing more than a collective Pacific Rim ho-hum at a mix that appears old news in these parts. Even so, Stewart Wallace's "The Bonesetter's Daughter," based on Amy Tan's bestselling novel and given its premiere by San Francisco Opera on Saturday night, brought a welcome dose of operatic chinoiserie to the West Coast.
The roots of this project, which is American Chinese rather than Chinese American, are being much touted. Wallace, best known for his opera "Harvey Milk," is a composer from Texas with a background in rock music, cantorial singing and the experimental stage. Tan, who wrote her own libretto, is the daughter of Chinese immigrants. A literary celebrity in the Bay Area, she is clearly the opera's big commercial draw.
The third major collaborator for the production in the War Memorial Opera House is director Chen Shi-Zheng, a Chinese émigré whose unforgettable production of the 19-hour classical kunjun opera "The Peony Pavilion" at New York's Lincoln Center in 1999 made him a theatrical star. He has gone on to have a mixed record directing in opera, the musical theater and film. His first feature, "Dark Matter," starring Meryl Streep, recently -- and unjustly -- bombed.
Tan's tale is a mother-daughter saga with a twist. A ghost haunts our heroine Ruth's mother, LuLing. This spirit of her mother, the bonesetter's daughter, keeps a shocking past ever present in modern-day San Francisco. For the elliptical libretto, Tan shed most of the chick-lit bits of her book, placing a greater emphasis on the supernatural.
To get authentic source material, Wallace took three China trips, returning with Chinese instruments and the musicians to play them. The first sounds of the opera are of two suonas, Chinese horns, placed on opposite sides of the balcony. That is followed by gongs and drums used in Chinese opera. Four Chinese percussionists are key players in the score, and one of them, Li Zhonghua, became a collaborator with Wallace on the composition.
The sounds of Chinese opera pervade the entire work. Except in minor instances, the Chinese characters are portrayed by Chinese singers, and the swooping character of their native music frequently infects their vocal lines. Wallace plays the same magical musical trick on the in-strumental side. His lean, simple and direct style allows him to comfortably mingle Asian techniques with Minimalism, swinging pop and a considerable amount of sweeping Straussian vocal writing for the three women.
Yet for all that, and for all its supernatural elements, "The Bonesetter's Daughter" remains an essentially conventional Western opera. Its structure follows that of a typical Puccini opera, with the colorful opening scenes leading to leaner death scenes.
The long first act includes a family gathering in a restaurant of Ruth; her mother; Ruth's American husband, Art; and his family. LuLing's mother, known as Precious Auntie, hovers as she always does. A Chinese village flashback re-creates LuLing's past. Her father, Chang, a rapacious coffin maker, raped Precious Auntie in an attempt to get his hands on the dragon bone of her bonesetter father. Ground to pulp, it contains the power of eternal life.
Chang next tries to marry LuLing. But Precious Auntie sets herself ablaze to stop the wedding. In the shorter second act, Chang gets his comeuppance: Precious Auntie's ghost castrates him with her dragon bone. The opera ends in a hospital room in San Francisco as Ruth comes to terms with her difficult dying mother and the family history.
Chen's production is elaborate. It includes a superfluous troupe of flying Chinese acrobats, superfluous filmed projections and special effects. It is not without elegance or excitement. The restaurant scene is terrific, and Chen carefully handles characters moving between different time periods. But overall the stage design by Walt Spangler looks cheap, as though something far more elaborate was wanted but proved beyond the capacity of San Francisco Opera and/or its budget.
Zheng Cao (as Ruth and the young LuLing), Ning Liang (the dying LuLing) and Qian Yi (Precious Auntie) are the heart of the performance. And their combined ability to bring soaring lyricism, intense drama and exotic Chinese effects (Qian comes directly from the kunjun tradition) proved irresistibly voluptuous. Wu Tong, who portrays a Taoist priest and a chef, also happens to be a Chinese rock musician, and he is an electric presence. Hao Jiang Tian, the coffin maker, was properly unpleasant. James Maddalena, Ruth's husband, was the standout of the underused Western cast.
Stephen Sloane conducted an engaging performance, despite shaky moments from orchestra and chorus. The voices were amplified, and very well, although at first they sounded too distant.
"The Bonesetter's Daughter" would, I think, be a better opera with more chances taken, a more daring libretto and maybe a bigger budget. But there is a lot to like here, especially in a score with so much exotic ear candy.