San Francisco Social Diary: The San Francisco Opera’s “Dream of the Red Chamber”

A day after its Opening Gala, the San Francisco Opera presented Dream of the Red Chamber, a gorgeous multi-national production based on a classic Chinese novel.


The San Francisco Opera held the world premiere of the Chinese opera Dream of the Red Chamber and a second sold-out gala only a day after its spectacular annual Opening Night Gala for the premiere of Andrea Chenier.

Dream of the Red Chamber is a classic Chinese novel by Cao Xueqin, as well known in China as Romeo and Juliet in the West. Written in the mid-18th century during the Qing Dynasty, it’s considered one of the four greatest Chinese novels, along with The Three Kingdoms, The Water Margin, and Journey to the West.

Twice as long as War and Peace, with more than 400 characters, the tale is challenging to adapt as a two-and-a-half-hour show. In China, it has inspired numerous films and theatre pieces, two television series, and countless operas.

The SF Opera performance of Dream of the Red Chamber featured vividly ornamented, dreamlike sets designed by Tim Yip, who won an Oscar art direction on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.


Like many operas, Red Chamber tells a tragic love story. It starts, innocently enough, with a stone that has nurtured a flower with its dew for 3,000 years. Stone and Flower wish to fulfill their love as humans, so Stone becomes Bao Yu and Flower Dai Yu.

Though they wish to wed, Bao Yu’s mother, Lady Wang, encourages him to marry the beautiful Bao Chai, daughter of his wealthy Aunt Xue, to pay off their imperial debts. The emperor also encourages the match, but Bao Yu still chooses Dai Yu.

However, Aunt Xue and Lady Wang trick Bao Yu into marrying Bao Chai. After the wedding, it’s revealed that the emperor supported the match only in order to seize the Xue fortune when he arrested the Jia family for unpaid debts. Ultimately, Dai Yu drowns herself in a lake and the Jia family become beggars.

South Korean soprano Pureum Jo as the doomed Dai Yu.

Chinese tenor Yijie Shi as Bao Yu.

Japanese-American mezzo-soprano Irene Roberts as Bao Chai.

Chinese contralto Qiulin Zhang (left) as Granny Jia.

Hyona Kim as Lady Wang.

The production, which brought together many international artists, was commissioned by the San Francisco Opera and co-produced with the Hong Kong Arts Festival.


This English-language production was conceived by Pearl Lam Bergad, Executive Director of the Minneapolis-based Chinese Heritage Foundation, who in 2013 brought the idea to then-Opera General Director David Gockley, who stepped down from the SF Opera upon the close of the 2015 season.

The multi-national production “dream team” included Bright Sheng, the MacArthur-winning composer from Shanghai; David Henry Hwang, the Tony-winning American librettist; director Stan Lai, now of Taiwan; and Tim Yip, the Academy Award-winning set and costume designer, a native of Hong Kong.

Director Stan Lai, set and costume designer Tim Yip, composer Bright Sheng, and former SF Opera General Director David Gockley, whose last project before he stepped down was Red Chamber.

Pearl Lam Bergad, Ming Li Tchou, and former SF Opera General Director David Gockley.

Librettist David Henry Hwang and director Stan Lai.


The premiere celebration offered more than 300 guests a pre-performance cocktail hour in the War Memorial Opera House, a dinner in the Green Room of the Veterans Building, and a post-performance reception with the cast and creators.

The event was co-chaired by Opera Board of Directors member Doreen Woo Ho and War Memorial Trustee Gorretti Lo Lui together with Asian Art Museum of San Francisco Board President Timothy Kahn and former Opera General Director David Gockley. San Francisco Mayor Edwin M. Lee and his wife Anita Lee served as honorary co-chairs.

During the cocktail hour, guests enjoyed a demonstration of the q’in—a Chinese zither instrument featured prominently in the opera.

Gala Co-Chairs Gorretti Lo Lui, in an antique Qing dynasty robe, and Doreen Woo Ho, in a dress by local designer Victor Tung.

Anita Lee, SF Mayor Ed Lee, and SF Opera General Director Matthew Shilvock, now serving in his first season as Director.

Former SF Mayor Frank Jordan and Wendy Jordan.

Congresswoman and recently re-elected Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi with her husband Paul Pelosi.

Yahoo! co-founder Jerry Yang and venture capitalist and former California State Controller and CFO Steve Westly.

SF Symphony President Sako Fisher and Denise Hale.

The organizing committee, which raised the funding for this new opera, included novelist Amy Tan, Yahoo! co-founder and former CEO Jerry Yang, Asian Art Museum of San Francisco director Jay Xu, and acclaimed San Francisco Ballet principal dancer Yuan Yuan Tan.

Choreographer Fang-Yi Sheu, set and costume designer Tim Yip, SF Ballet principal dancer Yuan Yuan Tan, Doreen Woo Ho, and James Ho.

Akiko Yamazaki and Yahoo! co-founder Jerry Yang.

YouTube co-founder Steve Chen with his wife Jamie Chen.

Tom Carroll, Carolyn Carroll, Shirley Soong, Gorretti Lo Lui, Doreen Woo Ho, and Federico Sandino.

Jeanne Lawrence, SF Mayor Ed Lee, his wife Anita Lee, and legendary James Beard Award-winning chef Cecilia Chiang. Her PBS TV show, The Kitchen Wisdom of Cecilia Chiang, airs in January on San Francisco’s KQED.

Annie Liu Wong, Thao Dodson, Jerome Dodson, Mindy Sun, Margaret Liu Collins, and Iris Chan.

Richard Barker, Bobbie McChristy, Pam Kramlich, Margaret Liu Collins, Dan Welch, Marie Welch, and Dick Kramlich.

Sylvia Wong, Anne Kahn, Timothy Kahn, and Hugh Wong.

Bi-coastal Jeanne Lawrence, former SF Opera Director David Gockley, and New York-based art consultant Sarina Tang, who divides her time between homes in Beijing and Brazil.

Rosina Sun, Cecilia Chiang, Doreen Woo Ho, Katherine Lo, Helen Cheng, Sherry Chen, Diana Liu, and Vanessa Wong.

Brian James, Timothy Blackburn, and Shariq Yosufzai.

Dona Crowder and Gladyne Mitchell, dressed in accordance with the opera’s theme.

Denise Hale, Sherry Chen, Tiffany Wang, Cecilia Chiang, Shirley Soong, director Stan Lai, and his mother and Lingling Lai.

Dan Rose, Tony Bates, Cori Bates, Gorretti Lo Lui, Allison Rose, Jamie Chen, and Steve Chen.

Guests dined on an eight-course Chinese dinner by McCalls, paired with wine by VinAtlas of San Francisco.

The menu highlighted Huaiyang cuisine, from the region surrounding the lower reaches of the Huai and Yangtze rivers.


Photos by Drew Altizer and San Francisco Opera.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *