Change from the Red Chamber

Pureum Jo (Dai Yu) in Dream of the Red Chamber. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Lucy and I just saw The Dream of the Red Chamber, a new opera based on the classic Chinese novel of the same name. Composed by Bright Sheng, with a libretto by David Henry Hwang, and directed by Stan Lai, it’s the first opera faithfully set to Chinese source material by established Chinese (and Chinese-American artists) experienced at navigating between eastern and western traditions. This is monumental.

The three big names creating the opera are known across the US and the world in their respective fields, but the production is also supported by an inspiring roster of local Asian-American figures normally scattered around the ranks of donors. For this production they took an active role, contributing creatively and raising $2 million for a headline production at the San Francisco Opera, one of the greatest opera companies in the US.

As a novice opera-goer, I was spellbound. But not because the cast was powerful and brilliant, the music rich and textured, or the set filled with depth and detail. I was spellbound because for once, as a person of Chinese heritage, I was truly included in the grand history and beauty of Western classical music.

The relationship between my Chinese heritage and my love for Western Classical music has been a complex one: knowing that the history of Chinese culture stretches far beyond the history of classical music, but having so little music to show for it; seeing more and more Asian performers take the stage as global stars while playing music of their heritage as sideshows; listening to the most beautiful music ever written while unable to shake the feeling of cultural appropriation and fetishism (in Puccini’s Turandot, the court ministers are named Ping, Pang and Pong).

It bears repeating, The Dream of the Red Chamber’s provenance is special. A major work was created fully in Western classical/academic establishment, by artists of Chinese heritage recognized by their Western peers, based faithfully on the most revered Chinese literature, and ultimately validated by a sold-out run at a world class opera company. It’s off to a great start, and despite opera’s relatively limited reach, I think it will make waves.

As it travels around the world to destinations in Hong Kong, China, Taiwan and back to the US, I wonder if it will change music study across Asia and the rest of the world. I wonder if current Chinese and Asian composers, along with their patrons, will be bolder and more ambitious. I wonder if Western patrons will have a bigger appetite and more refined palate for music of Eastern heritage. While these answers surface, I hope the next generation of Asian-heritage musicians begin to see expanded prospects in their future careers, with respect to public expectations and in their own ambitions.

I doubt The Dream of the Red Chamber will become standard repertoire centuries from today. Despite its color and richness, it’s difficult to imagine it earning its place among the greats. But experiencing the performance, looking around at the radically different audience demographics and reading the impressive content in the 86-page concert program made me think history will remember it as a point of change in the global consciousness of Classical music.