The Premier of The Bonesetter’s Daughter Opera at the San Francisco Opera House
The San Francisco Opera (SFO) presented the world premiere of The Bonesetter’s Daughter, a new American opera adapted from Amy Tan’s novel of the same name, last fall.
Tan, the Bay Area author best known for her novels The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God’s Wife, also wrote the libretto.
A weaving of the past and present, The Bonesetter’s Daughter is the story of three generations of women whose lives span 1930s China, modern day San Francisco, as well as the Chinese spirit world.
Stewart Wallace (Harvey Milk) composed the score, drawing inspiration from the novel’s Chinese roots. Steven Sloane conducted the orchestra.
The cast included Chinese mezzo-soprano Ning Liang as LuLing Liu Young, making her SFO debut. Mezzo-soprano Zheng Cao (The Peony Pavilion) sang the role of Ruth Young Kamen; Kunju singer Qian Yi (acclaimed by The New York Times Magazine as “China’s reigning opera princess”) was Precious Auntie; and bass Hao Jiang Tian resonated as Chang the Coffinmaker (his recent autobiography is Along the Roaring River).
Chinese-born, New York-based director Chen Shi-Zheng (The Peony Pavilion and Monkey: Journey to the West) energized the staging with dramatic multimedia visual displays, while the Dalian Acrobatic Troupe defied gravity.
The opulent costumes were created by NY/Shanghai-based designer Han Feng, who also designed the costumes for Anthony Minghella’s Madame Butterfly at the New York Metropolitan Opera.
On a side note, I’ve gotten to know Han Feng while living in Shanghai and have visited her design studio in the famed Grosvenor House, where I witnessed fashionistas—including opera star Renée Fleming—come from around the globe for her custom designs.
SFO General Director David Gockley received a big applause for this production. Joining SFO in 2006 after 33 years with the Houston Grand Opera, he has deservedly earned a reputation for expanding the boundaries of opera through a willingness to take risks with contemporary stagings.
With the Bay Area home to the second largest Asian community outside of Asia and Amy Tan’s involvement, it seemed only natural that this opera premiered in the City by the Bay.
For me personally, it’s been fascinating to watch the birth of this opera, as I know many of the players. One friend, executive producer Sarina Tang, explained that she, Tan, and Stewart became instant friends when they first met in the 1990s at Yaddo, the well-known artist retreat in Saratoga Springs, New York.
In 2001, Shanghai-born Tang hosted a book party for Tan the day that The Bonesetter’s Daughter was first published, which was coincidentally Tan’s birthday.
For this celebration, Tang asked Stewart to write some music. He did. Choosing the books opening lines, he wrote music for three female voices that eventually became the basis for the opera.
In 2004, Tang invited a group of friends, including Tan and Stewart, to celebrate her birthday in China. Touring the country, Stewart became enthralled with traditional Chinese instrumentation and was particularly inspired by master Peking Opera percussionist Li Zhonghua, who would eventually come all the way from China to perform the opera.
Opera patrons John and Cynthia Gunn also deserve kudos for this opera. Actively involved in the process from the beginning, they provided the seed money and last year they gifted the SFO $40 million dollars—the largest donation ever given to the company.
Now don’t fret if you missed the opening as I hear there is a documentary film based on the making of the opera that is to air on public television this spring.
Or, you might read the book, Fate! Luck! Chance!, Hong-Kong-based journalist Ken Smith’s account of the creative process behind the opera. Or, you might see it in China someday.
“This was the first-ever western opera encompassing authentic Chinese music,” said Tang. “My original vision was to take the opera to the Chinese audience and bridge the cultural and musical traditions. We’re still hoping for that.”
With such a stunning and innovative production, I’m sure that dream will materialize.
The MacDowell Colony Visits San Francisco
The Trustees of The MacDowell Colony, one of America’s best-known artist colonies, visited San Francisco to see a work incubated at the Colony: the opera, Bonesetter’s Daughter. While in town, they visited Don and Doris Fisher’s (The Gap) art collection, the Asian Art Museum, and the Museum of African Diaspora (MOAD).
New board member Pamela Joyner with her husband, Fred Giuffrida, hosted an Artists Salon and dinner at the couple’s grand home in Presidio Heights. On a side note, Joyner is also on the board of the School of American Ballet and in January attended their gala in Manhattan.
Founded in 1907, the Colony has a multidisciplinary artist residency program and consists of 32 artists’ houses surrounded by 450 acres of beautiful woodlands near Peterborough, New Hampshire.
Here the artists enjoy the solitude to create without the distractions of everyday life–no phones are allowed. Each day the artist community gathers for breakfast and dinner in a common dining room where they often collaborate and share their inspiration.
More than 6,000 artists, including 61 Pulitzer Prizes winners, have spent time in the Colony since its founding more than a century ago. Among them are artists such as Aaron Copland, Milton Avery, James Baldwin, Leonard Bernstein, Willa Cather, Michael Chabon, Jules Feiffer, Frances Fitzgerald, Arthur Kopit, Faith Ringgold, Studs Terkel, Barbara Tuchman, Alice Walker, and Thornton Wilder.
During the welcome party, visual artist and Colony Fellow Richard Mayhew gave a guided tour of the couple’s artwork, featuring some of his own landscape paintings.
The evening’s program also featured Stewart Wallace, another Colony Fellow, who spoke of his experience composing the new opera The Bonesetter’s Daughter that premiered recently at the San Francisco Opera.
Collaborating with the novel’s author and opera’s librettist, the Bay Area’s own Amy Tan, Wallace actually composed part of the music at MacDowell. So you can understand why he’s involved.
Colony Fellow and filmmaker David Petersen discussed his documentary about the opera’s creation, while Beijing Chinese percussionist Li Zhonghua demonstrated the traditional Chinese instruments on which he played Wallace’s score.
Other artists included writer Michael Chabon, composer Anthony Davis, and writer Ayelet Waldman.
The next day, the Joyners and the McDowell trustees had the opportunity to enjoy a performance of The Bonesetter’s Daughter at the San Francisco Opera House. Experiencing the artists’ work live confirmed why The MacDowell Colony wins their support.
Photographs by Drew Altizer and Victoria Sambunaris.