The Bonesetter’s Daughter, music by Stewart Wallace, libretto by Amy Tan, produced at the San Francisco Opera, is simply an extraordinary piece.
Its extra-ordinariness comes from its libretto. Amy Tan writes about what it means to be Chinese-American, and her libretto is very much a Chinese-American chick flick. (We are working the idea that opera is like a chick flick, an idea first proposed here.) Her heroine Ruth, who has a Caucasian husband, attempts to follow the ancient tradition of feasting on the Chinese New Year. To show her appreciation she gives her mother LuLing a fur coat. LuLing has an outburst where she retells the OJ Simpson murder as though she were an eyewitness. This is followed by a stroke.
The story is of three women: Ruth, her mother LuLing and LuLing's mother Precious Auntie. The only male role of significance is the villain Chang the coffin maker, sung by Hao Jiang Tian. Over the course of the story Ruth travels back in time, transforms into LuLing and alters the course of her mother’s life--something like a Star Trek episode.
The extraordinariness comes from the music which is made by a standard opera orchestra plus xylophones, Chinese drums and a pair of Chinese oboes which introduce the scenes in China. They serve as signals that we have entered another realm. The composer is to be congratulated for creating a characteristic musical language for this piece that is interesting to hear and expressive of the fairy tale story.
There is wisdom here. The story is about three generations of women, two of which have never met, but librettist and composer find ways for them to appear together, speak similar words and sing trios together. It is the most glorious sound in an opera since the trio from Rosenkavalier. It is the perfect antidote to Simon Boccanegra. It is an opera about singing.
The extraordinariness comes from the production. There are almost constant projections from the rear, but the stage is relatively austere. Acrobats fly in the air. There is dry ice. There is a pink mink. And there is a ghost.
The bonesetter’s daughter is Precious Auntie who appears as a mortal in the flashbacks, a mortal who immolates herself to prevent her daughter from marrying her own father, and as a ghost throughout the rest of the opera.
The extraordinariness comes from the performers. Zheng Cao as Ruth and young LuLing, and Ning Liang as old LuLing are traditional western opera singers. They sing well and move as traditional opera singers would be expected to move.
Qian Yi as Precious Auntie is from Chinese opera. Her portrayal is what raises this work to the truly extraordinary. When Auntie is a ghost, she appears with long, flowing white hair that sticks out from her back rather like wings. She moves as if floating across the stage by making very fast small steps. She flies on wires. Would one mind being haunted by this gorgeous ethereal being? Her singing is also quite extraordinary. In the trios she must surely sing like the western singers. She is miked throughout and when she sings alone, it resembles nothing so much as Christine Schaefer singing Pierre Lunaire. She slides constantly, hardly seeming to light on any specific note.
The loudest cheers were for Qian Yi and Amy Tan. It was a wonderful evening in the theater. All are to be congratulated.