Deep in their bones

Special to The Times

Deep IN the womb of the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House, a famous novelist is giving a world-class mezzo-soprano a piece of her mind. Dressed in loose-fitting black pants and a matching T-shirt, lots of heavy, silver jewelry and eccentric-looking orthotic sneakers, Amy Tan makes explosive, diagonal slicing movements with her arms. “My mother used to do this,” says Tan, tapping into her past. “Now you try.”

Charged with playing the role of the mother figure, LuLing Liu Young, in San Francisco Opera’s adaptation of Tan’s 2001 novel “The Bonesetter’s Daughter,” which will have its world premiere here Saturday, the glamorous Chinese opera singer Ning Liang nods her head. Then she removes a stiletto heel, hops lightly onto a chair in her knee-length pencil-line skirt and mimics Tan’s slashing gesture while making, through clenched teeth, a noise that sounds like tearing flesh. “Szzzt!” the singer intones, swiping the air savagely with her shoe. Tan looks pleased. “You’re good at crazy,” she tells Ning. “I don’t need to coach you.”

Five years ago, when this 56-year-old, Bay Area- and New York-based author embarked on the process of transforming into an opera her book about an American-born Chinese woman’s relationship with her aging immigrant mother and ghostly Chinese grandmother, little did the first-time librettist imagine that she’d be working directly with the singers. “I had no idea how opera was made,” says Tan, best known for her candid excavations of mother-daughter relationships in such bestsellers as “The Joy Luck Club” (she also co-wrote Wayne Wang’s 1993 film adaptation) and “The Kitchen God’s Wife.” “I was mystified by the process.”

But because so many moments in the opera draw directly on episodes from her life, Tan has become increasingly concerned with helping the performers understand the emotional content of the scenes. “I was writing ‘The Bonesetter’s Daughter’ at a time when my mother was losing her memory, and it’s essentially a story about what needs to be remembered,” she says.


Just as Tan’s mother suffered from dementia in her later years, so in the opera LuLing raves about being an eyewitness to the O.J. Simpson murders. (Tan’s mother similarly suffered delusions about being present at the scene of the crime.) And just as Tan’s mother threatened her daughter with a knife when Tan was 16, so the opera includes a scene in which LuLing’s own mother, a ghostly figure called Precious Auntie, threatens her daughter with a “dragon bone,” a mysterious Chinese totem that serves as one of the narrative’s main symbols of the past.

The private coaching sessions are just one technique employed by Tan in an effort to inspire the singers to connect viscerally with the story. The writer also distributed sections of her memoir, “The Opposite of Fate,” among cast members. She even dug her mother’s old mink coat out of her closet to help Zheng Cao, the mezzo-soprano cast in the main role of LuLing’s daughter, Ruth, to better understand the emotional dynamics underpinning the scene in the opera in which Ruth gives LuLing such a garment as a gift.

“Ruth isn’t entirely autobiographical,” says Zheng, whose roles have included the Czech-speaking Varvara in Janacek’s “Katya Kabanova” and the cockney-inflected Mrs. Lovett in Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” but who has not until now essayed a Chinese character on the operatic stage. “However, I want to get as much of the raw juice of Ruth from Amy as I can to make the character as full as possible. I have to put my emotion second and Amy’s emotion first. I’m always thinking about how she would have reacted in real life to situations in the opera.”

The power of memory


The THEME of memory doesn’t only underpin Tan’s libretto -- it permeates the entire opera project, from director Chen Shi-Zheng’s mise-en-scene to composer Stewart Wallace’s music. When the Texas-born, New York-based composer read Tan’s novel (the two had met and become friends in 1994 at the Yaddo artists’ colony in upstate New York), he quickly saw the operatic potential of her tale about three generations of women, which spans contemporary San Francisco, 1930s China and the spirit world.

“I was drawn to the idea that we carry within our bones our histories whether we like it or not,” says Wallace, whose 1995 opera, “Harvey Milk,” dwells on similar ideas. “It’s the telling of stories from the past that allows you to transcend them.”

Having persuaded an initially reluctant Tan to join him in adapting “The Bonesetter’s Daughter” into an opera, Wallace, 47, set about immersing himself in Chinese rituals and music. The composer watched about 50 martial arts movies (a genre that he says has its roots in Chinese opera) and made several trips to the People’s Republic, where he developed an understanding of China’s cultural traditions and met crucial collaborators.

It was as a result of meeting the master Peking Opera percussionist Li Zhonghua in 2004 that Wallace decided to incorporate music for a Chinese percussion quartet and two suonas (Chinese reed trumpets) in his otherwise classical orchestral score. Ultimately, he even invited Li to come to San Francisco to participate in the first production. The percussionist had never played with a Western orchestra before, but he agreed.


Wallace’s research also took him to South Carolina’s 2004 Spoleto Festival, where he sat through all 19 hours of director Chen’s reconstruction of the great Chinese operatic epic “The Peony Pavilion.” That production’s marriage of ancient traditions and modern staging ideas harmonized with the composer’s desire to merge the past and the present in “The Bonesetter’s Daughter.”

“At that point, I realized that Shi-Zheng was the perfect director for this project,” he says. “His ‘Peony Pavilion’ is not traditional Chinese opera, it’s a contemporary concept that he brought to the tradition. And in a way, it completed our circle, because Amy’s and my perspective is very American, and Shi-Zheng’s -- having been born in China -- is not.”

Eventually, Chen did come on board, fusing past and present with a staging that includes a huge, translucent fiberglass dragon-bone wall, a battalion of flying Chinese acrobats and high-definition video projections depicting, among other images, flowing waterfalls and a fish tank at a San Francisco Chinese restaurant.

“We came up with the idea of a bone wall as a modern metaphor for the story,” says Chen, whose recent directorial projects have included the stage spectacle “Monkey: Journey to the West” and the Meryl Streep movie “Dark Matter.” “We use lighting to reveal the structure behind the wall, and in the second half, the wall breaks apart. In this way, we show how memories from the past are hidden inside us all.”


Otherworldly character

“The PEONY Pavilion’s” leading lady, celebrated Chinese kunju artist Qian Yi, also joined the project. In the role of Ruth’s ghostly ancestor, Precious Auntie (the bonesetter’s daughter of the title), Qian anchors much of the opera’s preoccupation with memory. Brandishing a dragon bone, the character takes Ruth on a journey from modern-day San Francisco to the China of LuLing’s youth.

Unlike the other performers, who employ classical Western vocal techniques, however, Qian draws on the ethereal “speech-song” voice and expressive physical gestures of traditional kunju opera to suggest an otherworldly presence and links to a faraway past. Wallace collaborated with Qian, who doesn’t read music and has never worked with a conductor before, over a period of three years to prepare the role. “The Bonesetter’s Daughter” represents her first foray into Western opera.

The opera’s obsession with memory also spawned a pair of side projects aimed, in their own way, at chronicling the past. They include a PBS documentary about the making of the opera and “Fate! Luck! Chance!,” a book of interviews with the opera’s core collaborators by music journalist Ken Smith. Smith traveled with Tan and Wallace throughout China, and acted as a sounding board for the composer, during the development process.


Yet as much as this new American opera with Chinese colors pays homage to the past, it also looks to the future. For San Francisco Opera’s general director, David Gockley, who commissioned it in 2007 shortly after arriving in San Francisco from Houston Grand Opera, this means exploring possibilities for a follow-up production in China.

“China is at the very formative stages of being able to co-produce operas with Western organizations,” Gockley says. “We’ve been talking to the Shanghai Opera House and the Beijing Music Festival, but if we proposed this five years from now, it would probably be a lot easier to effect.”

For Chen, the opera presages the future of Sino-American relationships in a different way. “I want the opera to get people thinking about how the two cultures intersect and how our two nations might work together in the years ahead,” he says.

Wallace, for his part, doesn’t view the opera as a vehicle for promoting international understanding. For him, the project resonates in a more intimate way.


“Our objective was never to bridge cultures,” the composer says. “If we’ve managed to do this, it’s the unintentional result of the relationships we’ve built along the way. The cathartic journey of the three women in the story transcends history and politics. It’s personal and emotional.”


“The Bonesetter’s Daughter,” San Francisco War Memorial Opera House, 8 p.m. Saturday; 8 p.m. Sept. 16; 2 p.m. Sept. 20; 7:30 p.m. Sept. 25; 2 p.m. Sept. 28; 7:30 p.m. Sept. 30; 8 p.m. Oct. 3. $15-$290. (415) 864-3330 or