The First Emperor – twice

While I’ve been convalescing I’ve been reading a number of New Music blogs and arts articles. In a very odd way I am more in touch with what is going on in New Music than I’ve been for a number of years because of it. One of the bits of news that I got very excited about was Tan Dun’s new opera The First Emperor which was commissioned by The New York Metropolitan Opera. Tan Dun is probably best known for writing the soundtrack for Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. What I have liked about Dun’s work in the past is his integration of Chinese instruments, sounds, techniques and inflections in a Western Classical environment. Having read some interviews before experiencing the opera I knew that those aspects of his work would be featured in The First Emperor. Those aspects were featured, but not enough in my opinion.

My first experience of the opera was listening to the premiere being broadcast live from the Met online. However, after the first 20 minutes of percussive chorus work accompanied by large drums and rocks with the ecstatic vocalizations of the Yin-Yang Master (played by Wu Hsing-Kuo), things began to drag. What started out as an interesting hybridity of sound soon coalesced into a jelly of long lyric lines with no centre and occasional bursts from the orchestra and chorus that brought my attention back. The second act dragged even more for the same reason.

However, knowing that opera is only half about music (feel free to argue that point!), I decided to go see the live broadcast that was being shown in movie theatres. I was pleasantly surprised that it was going to be shown in Saskatoon and a friend and I went. I had warned her about the music, but also that I am extremely picky when it comes to this sort of thing. I was looking forward to the Costumes (by Emi Wada), the Set (by Fan Yue) and production/direction (by film directorZhang Yimou ). I was not disappointed by any of their work! The costumes were gorgeous, the set simple but innovative (suspended rocks rock!), and the general direction of the piece, aside from the second act, was well thought out.

Another aspect of experiencing the opera on screen was that there were subtitles. When I was listening to the audio broadcast I was quite sure the opera was in Chinese until about an hour into it when I started to recognize some English words. Yes, even though most of the opera was sung in English there was a need for subtitles. I know that technically, an operatic voice is best suited to languages that contain a lot of vowels and simple consonants (like Italian) and that one of the reasons classically trained opera singers use so much vibrato is to help project, though I read recently (on David Byrne’s blog) that it is only in the last century that such wide vibrato has come into use, perhaps because of the advent of recording!!! I also remember a music history professor telling me that Wagner hated wide vibrato because it muffled the text, and that older recordings of his work have almost no vibrato. So much for the theory that vibrato helps one project! If a singer could sing over a Wagnerian orchestra without vibrato and be heard, then something else was helping them project! Now, most opera productions are miked. No need for vibrato then! This being the NY Met and the singers being classically trained, the vibrato was wide and the text almost unintelligible, hence the subtitles, which helped immensely to follow the plot. Much of the text itself was a bit cumbersome and my friend pointed out that there were some very odd phrase breaks. Perhaps this is partially due to the libretto being written by Ha Jin and Tan Dun, for both of whom English is a second language.

Another aspect of the performance that led to problems with text was the performance of Placido Domingo. I almost feel I am not allowed to criticize his performance because he is so well-respected in the field of opera. The role of the Emperor was written for him by Tan Dun and in interviews I read and watched, Domingo seemed genuinely excited that he was finally, in his mid-60s, performing in a new work (this says a lot about how often new work is given any sort of consideration in opera, but that is fodder for its own post!). Perhaps it is his reliance on repertory work that singing unfamiliar lyric lines is difficult for him. Still, through almost all of the audio broadcast I could hear his prompter, and through much of the theatre broadcast it seemed like he was either behind or else making up the vocal lines that he was singing.

The lyric lines themselves varied from gorgeous themes like the song of the slaves, to, as I mentioned earlier, atmospheric lines that had no centre to the point that Mr. Domingo seemed (or else was) improvising on stage. (I also have nothing against improvising, but in the context of a work that is obviously carefully scored, it was very out of place.) The love scene in the first act could have used a theme to hold it together, and even though there was an extremely dynamic moment in the plot during this scene, the music somehow fell flat at that point. Soprano Elizabeth Futral, who played Princess Yueyang, seemed to be struggling with the fact that it was new repertoire as well, though Paul Groves, who played her love interest, Gao Jianli, gave an exquisite performance. I could actually understand almost all the text he was singing and the resonance of his voice was like the long pealing of a bell. He played the role of Jianli so that it was believable: as far as I was concerned, he was a Chinese composer from B.C.E. times.

I read after listening to the audio broadcast that Tan Dun had spent time over the past ten years listening to a lot of Puccini operas and was likely influenced by that in this work. I’m not a big fan of Puccini but what I listened to in music history classes years ago were a lot of arias with long lyric lines. Most of them were romantic arias, in which long lyric lines are appropriate. In The First Emperor, the long lyric lines were absolutely everywhere, especially in the second act. As I told a number of people, when over half of the main characters are dying in various ways off- and on-stage, it shouldn’t drag. The music should hold my interest as well as the plot. True, these were the parts where Domingo seemed most at a loss as to what he was supposed to be singing.

Even though I am disappointed in this opera, I am still curious about Tan Dun’s work. Another opera, Tea: A Mirror of Soul, which is based on the aesthetics of the Japanese and Chinese tea ceremonies, seems like something I might enjoy. It was premiered in 2002 in Tokyo as a co-production with an opera company in the Netherlands. Perhaps with The First Emperor Dun was trying too hard to please an audience accustomed to repertory work. However, I have yet to read a review by such critics, only New Music critics seem to be writing about the work. Another blogger (though I can’t recall who) pointed out that New Opera very rarely gets workshopped completely before the performance and as such there are often aspects of the work that are not totally polished.

I would also say that any New Opera composer who is trying to push the envelope of vocal and physical expression is going to be held back by working with classically trained singers who are not willing or able to push that same envelope. Meredith Monk’s opera, Atlas, involved months of (re)training for the singers at the Houston Grand Opera. I have found this necessary with my own work as well. As I watched the theatre broadcast, many of the leads (with the exception of Paul Groves) were struggling to make sounds and leaps that they were unaccustomed to. This problem is not limited to opera, but is rather indicative of New Music played by classically-trained musicians not interested in New Music. The technical challenges are different and so other training is often required. I could go on and on about this, but again, it is fodder for it’s own post. New Opera and New Music Theatre are forms that I am very interested in creating in I see these things as challenges, but ones that can be overcome through training or willingness in the composer to see what they’re given to work with and to push the envelope as much as they can with what they are given without falling back on what they think might please the audience.