Authentic Orientalism—Tan Dun
by Daniel Goode
March 11th, 2007
I saw Tan Dun’s Metropolitan-commissioned opera, The First Emperor, that is, I saw the film of it at my local movie theater (what a great idea at $15 instead of a $90 Met ticket). It was the most expensive opera ever produced by the Met, and not the prettiest, far from the best, yet amazingly: authentic chinoiserie, because the creator and conductor is a true Chinese emigre composer from Mainland China, a fine musician as we can readily see in the film where he rehearses and conducts and coaxes Chinese rhythmic structure from the Met orchestra (that was my favorite part of the film).
It was as if the composer consulted a textbook on how to make an early 19th century opera, both plot and music (updated with a post-Copland tonal jam). The recipe proceeded: add a thin veneer of borrowed qualities from folk and Peking opera with plenty of generalized, contemporary ethnic sound, pleasant borrowings from Harry Partch, gamelan, flower-pot chimes of ancient China and post Cage-America. Placido Domingo painfully and humanly played the Emperor. It must have been fairly thankless: no wonderful tunes, lots of awkward a-rhythmic declamatory singing, he gets to reign over a lonely, now unified empire (represented by synchronized-swimming-style militaristic chorus); plus no off-spring, a dead son-in-law (protégé from the military killed off somehow). Not a good fate for a great culture, past or future. Elizabeth Futrel (great voice, good actress, matchstick Puccini-type) was the unlucky princess, though cured of leg-paralysis (“you don’t like my legs!”) by—exactly—one illicit love-making scene, she still had to die, and did so, thankfully, off-stage.
It’s just plain unfortunate to say that the music isn’t very good. It doesn’t ever give that special lift and momentum that makes opera work. It’s strangely reminiscent of clunky American opera composers like Robert Ward, not up to Menotti’s craft, lots of spectacle produced by specialist masters such as a Chinese male soprano/dancer who was super charismatic. But these virtues just called attention to the emptiness at the center: A little bit of Puccini-esque pentatonic European harmonizing, the show-off, Carl Orff-like “asian” sounds, some choral glissandos from Buddhists monks—you get the idea. Lots of stuff, not really melding into something satisfying.
And, to further embarrass the most tolerant ethnic sympathizer, a more-than-clunky libretto by the composer and a collaborator with choice lines like: “The dead branches are sprouting,” “dry husks of leaves rattled in my heart,” “You promised to go with me step by step to the summit.”
But maybe I’m just a little sour, because what really annoyed me subliminally throughout was the harsh audio sound, bringing the edginess, not the smoothness of these strong, vibrato-tinged voices to the fore. I had use earplugs some of the time. Movie sound systems are usually cranked up just in general. Here, one really missed the fuller, gentler, acoustic mix of the opera hall. Nobody really sounded good, even in an Italianate, harmonically friendly trio. One melodic tic became less rather than more affecting as it came back often through-out at phrase endings, a fa-mi-do, motive that reminded me constantly of some American theater composer, maybe Leonard Bernstein of Candide. But to start speculating at this level of discontent is madness.
The audience at my local New York theater was quite a bit older than most movie audiences there, sprinkled with true flamboyant artist types greeting and networking. I think these movie broadcasts are a really great innovation for the Met, even with the correctable deficit mentioned. Certainly the low price sweetens the possibility of walking out or taking breaks during slow times. The extensive intermission feature of rehearsal clips and interviews was the best part: lively, musical and all about process and art. If not fulfilled, I didn’t feel cheated. There was a lot to take in, a lot to think about in the three- hour event.