Mozart and Tan Dun at the Met (with a Detour to China)

Grant Chu Covell

[March 2007.]

On an uncharacteristically balmy December Friday in New York City, my family and I were at the opera. We stormed the Met in two shifts: The kids saw the new, gently abridged The Magic Flute and the adults took in Tan Dun’s The First Emperor. The critics have long since weighed in on the productions: cheers for WAM, jeers for Tan Dun. In fact, in addition to its damning review of the North American premiere, Gramophone saw fit to editorialize on the opera’s overall poor critical reception. Despite hours of listening to 20th-century Chinese music in a valiant attempt to better understand Tan Dun, my insights are unlikely to bring about planetary realignment. Both productions portray an opera house striving to expand its audience and its repertoire, but it’s not clear whether these events indicate an auspicious direction or a cul-de-sac.

Presumably change comes slowly to venerable institutions, especially when art, tradition and money collide. Much has been laid at the feet of Peter Gelb, the Met’s new General Manager, but I suspect praise is due to Joseph Volpe and the organization he shaped during his 17-year tenure at the Met’s helm. Some may dismiss on principle a slightly shortened, English-language staging of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte as blasphemous. But from what I heard and read, the matinee was filled with exhilarated children, and the compressed Julie Taymor production proved a success. The next day’s Saturday afternoon HD simulcast sold out at 48 of its targeted 60 theaters, reaching thousands around the globe. Tuning into the old-fashioned analog radio broadcast, I was astonished to discover that they sacrificed the overture to achieve their procrustean designs, but that’s show biz.

It’s clear that the gambit works. I know my household is unusual (we’ve prepped our young theatregoers with opera DVDs for years), but Mozart’s tunes are in the air, hummed at breakfast and at play. Now it’s just a matter of figuring out what operas to expose them to next. Yea to more Mozart and maybe Carmen or Der Rosenkavalier; but nay to most post-tonal standards. Such ruminations make wonderful columnist fodder. Perhaps a single-afternoon Ring is on the table. For the holiday 2007-08 season, the Met will present Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel. Is a new tradition in the making, like visits to The Nutcracker or P.D.Q. Bach?

Tan Dun’s The First Emperor is definitely not child-friendly. It did draw house-packing and appreciative crowds (all nine performances sold out), gratifying for any world premiere. Lovely to view (directed by filmmaker Zhang Yimou, sets by Fan Yue, costumes by Emi Wada, choreography by Dou Dou Huang, lighting by Duane Schuler), the new production possesses ingredients for success, but there was no fire in the stove, despite the Met’s towering imprimatur and nearly a decade of preparation, including workshops in Shanghai and New York. National Book Award winner Ha Jin and the composer provided a crisp plot, and yet the characters are dimensionless. Lacking subplots, there was never a structural need for a final dramatic coup or catharsis to gather up outstanding threads (think of Falstaff). Except for a lengthy love scene too torpid to be sensibly excerpted as a duet, Tan Dun wrote no showpieces for his principals. I can’t help a comparison with The Magic Flute. There’s nothing that thrills like the Queen of the Night’s “Der Hölle Rache,” there’s no comic Papageno to shadow earnest Tamino, and the opera’s trials fail to change Tan Dun’s persistently idealist emperor.

Maybe the lack of complexity is good, and perhaps I’m judging The First Emperor by Western standards. Despite my Chinese ancestry, my musical outlook is decidedly 20th-century European. My notion of successful East-West mixtures includes Lou Harrison and John Foulds at one end and Toru Takemitsu, Isang Yun and Toshio Hosokawa on the other, and I must labor to reconcile Tan Dun to the same degree of authenticity and sincerity. Tan Dun’s ethnic bridge-building could be dismissed as the easy route or (gasp!) even commercial. However, close listening to available recordings and DVDs makes clear that his chosen tack is genuine, though I suspect he’s at a turning point or, failing that, ought to be sufficiently self-aware to take future work in a new direction.

Tan Dun’s Westernization began in 1986 when he arrived in NYC to pursue doctoral studies at Columbia University. He survived the Cultural Revolution planting rice and performing Peking opera. When restrictions lifted, he enrolled in Beijing’s Central Conservatory and became part of China’s outward-looking “New Wave” in the 1980s. Dating from the start of his American residency, the violin concerto, Out of Peking Opera (1987, rev. ’94; Ondine ODE-864-2) is a remarkable nod to European modernism. Suffused with Chinese elements, its opening bars emulate Peking opera’s “jing hu” fiddling. Tan Dun admits that “… Out of Peking Opera was written in ambivalence, confronting serialism, being attracted yet doubting that it was the way for me. A second operation was necessary, and finally in 1994 it was completed and out of my mind.” It’s a fascinating concerto, clearly reminiscent of Berg, but peculiar in its way as a Western piece with Eastern flavors, unlike most of Tan Dun’s work, which reverses the cultural relationship.

Other works from the 1990s, like the 1992 Death and Fire, are skillfully orchestrated, with “exotic” effects exhibiting gratuitous modal clusters à la Xenakis and barbaric Bartókian melodies. Orchestral Theatre II: Re (1992) rehashes mid-century European avant-garde mummery (aleatorics, shrieking musicians, audience participation), overtly showcasing its East / West posture. Tan Dun’s unrelenting experimental streak, perhaps sparked by Cage, whom Tan Dun proudly admits as an influence, involves using non-traditional objects to make music. Among such efforts, Paper Music – The Pink (1993; Parnassus CD81801) is “acoustic music for paper (an erotic ritual in sound and movement).”

After Out of Peking Opera, the 1995 opera Marco Polo wrestles successfully with its East-West dichotomies. Perhaps Paul Griffiths’ incomprehensible libretto helps. (The booklet to Sony S2K 62912 contains luminescent blurbs from Takemitsu and Cage.) An unrepentant Mahler fanatic, maybe I’m swayed by what sounds to me like wholesale borrowing from Das Lied von der Erde. (Mahler and Li Po appear as characters.) However, the layered writing is a good deal more dissonant than anything of Mahler’s.

Despite wide acclaim, along with the 1996 Glenn Gould International Protégé Prize and the 1998 $150,000 Grawemeyer Award, at century’s close Tan Dun’s style grew somewhat schizoid: Some pieces seem markedly simple, fallow perhaps, in response to the pressures of high-profile commissions and projects. (Evidently Sony puts its roster to full use.) Deftly characterizing the corny Symphony 1997, “Heaven Earth Mankind” (Sony SK 63368), commemorating the reunion of Hong Kong with China, The New Yorker’s Alex Ross said it “would fit snugly onto the soundtrack of a one-world airline commercial.” Despite pipa and oriental percussion, the 1998 “Bitter Love” (Sony SK 61658), an extract from Tan Dun’s opera Peony Pavilion, comes across as a sloppy cross-cultural kiss. Despite a resonant recording emphasizing electronic toys, its cloying sampled effects over a steady beat put me in mind of a campy lounge act.

Other late 1990s works such as the Water Concerto (discussed here) reveal Tan Dun’s need to manipulate exotic sonorities while attempting to legitimize himself with the European avant-garde. With the 2000 Water Passion after St. Matthew (Sony S289927), I hear Tan Dun shifting from multiple layers and fast pacing towards slower tempos and lyrical lines. The oratorio’s title implies melding canonic Western religious music with earthy mysticism. Some moments inadvertently caricature both traditions as the composer slides into pop mode, its slower pacing affecting gravity.

At century’s start, Tan Dun delivered supple and effective film scores for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Hero (2002), winning a Grammy for the former. Like some Glass scores, perhaps Tan Dun’s music works better when combined with visuals as other than the primary focus. The movie Hero actually marks Tan Dun and director Zhang Yimou’s first treatment of the “First Emperor,” the 3rd-century B.C. Qin Shi Huang who built the Great Wall and whose tomb was discovered in 1974 surrounded by an army of larger-than-life terracotta warriors.

On the Met’s stage, Tan Dun’s fourth opera began auspiciously, the proscenium lined with drummers using stones instead of sticks. The theatre filled with loud, non-Western gestures, and the shamanistic Yin-Yang Master (Wu Hsing-Kuo) engaged in some rather unsettling vocalizing. When the lead singers appeared, including Plácido Domingo in his first premiere role at the Met, the music fell into expansive stretches of languid melody, rarely broken or contrasted. The opening percussion salvo was never repeated. Despite delicate phrase-ending portamentos, the metallic whirr of Tibetan singing bowls, struck ceramic pots, the zither-like zheng (or koto), and the enormous bell at stage left, in terms of its place in time, Puccini would have found nothing objectionable. The biggest surprise is the composer’s unsubtle Messiaen imitations, especially at Act I’s close. (Tan Dun admits in this opus tending toward fourths and tritones.) I had expected the Peking opera singer to interact more with his Western counterparts, perhaps even overlap with them in order to achieve Marco Polo’s density. The most consistently interesting writing was given to the hard-working chorus, yet their big tune, an anthem to unite China, fell flat.

Tan Dun joins a small band of composers who’ve conducted their own operas at the Met, including Albert Wolff (The Blue Bird, 1919), Henry Hadley (Cleopatra’s Night, 1920), Richard Hageman (Caponsacchi, 1937), Walter Damrosch (The Man Without a Country, 1937) and Italo Montemezzi (L’Amore dei Tre Re, 1940, 1941). Good company? Discussing The First Emperor, Tan Dun has said: “It’s not about being Chinese or Western, about being old or new. My favorite formula is now 1 + 1 = 1.” Thoughtful listeners may wonder whether those ones to the left of the equation have been rounded up from fractions. Do Chinese audiences think Tan Dun dilutes their traditions? I don’t think so, though perhaps he has inadvertently oversimplified what he holds dear in order to arrive at a sum that adds up. If Tan Dun continues to explore long lines, while thickening his textures and remembering his experiments with non-musical instruments, he might be on to something. The First Emperor returns next season, and I wonder if Tan Dun will make adjustments.

It takes some effort to pursue authentic 20th-century Chinese music. Featuring most of the standards, I’d judge Marco Polo’s catalog as essential reading. For a fascinating history, Sheila Melvin and Jindong Cai’s misleadingly titled Rhapsody in Red: How Western Classical Music became Chinese covers the Jesuit influences from the 17th-century Chinese court, the 1937-45 war with Japan and the Cultural Revolution to the present day. As early as the mid-1930s, Alexander Tcherepnin and Aaron Avshamalov bemoaned the encroachment of Western instruments and harmonies into traditional Chinese melodies and instruments. Almost overnight, the master-disciple tradition, where un-notated tunes were handed down from player to player, was replaced with standardized Western classroom learning about instruments and musical forms. (Avshamalov’s music blends in completely with his Chinese peers, Tcherepnin less so. Marco Polo offers Avshamalov’s Flute Concerto and First Symphony on 8.225033, the Violin Concerto, Soul of the Ch’in and Hutungs of Peking on 8.225034, and the Piano Concerto on Chinese Themes and Rhythms and Second Symphony on 8.225035. Representative Tcherepnin includes the First and Second symphonies and Piano Concerto No. 5 on BIS 1017, and the Third and Fourth symphonies and Piano Concerto No. 6 on BIS 1018. Tcherepnin’s Third is his “Chinese” symphony.)

To get an idea of what Tan Dun may have had buzzing about within his head, it’s worth investigating some of the past century’s most popular Chinese pieces. Considered the first Chinese orchestral work, Yale graduate Huang Zi’s 1929 In Memoriam (Marco Polo 8.223956) is an easy blend of Mahler and Italian verismo. On the same disc, Shande Ding’s 1950 First Xinjian Dance sounds a bit like Revueltas. Explicit Chinese content doesn’t surface until the mid-Thirties, when the impending Japanese conflict encouraged upper-case Nationalism. Representative mid-century orchestral works include Shande Ding’s acclaimed Symphony, “The Long March,” (1959-62). At nearly 72 minutes on Marco Polo 8.223579, the symphony fulfills ideological and populist goals with its explicit program, painted in bright realist colors straight from the can. Is it like Shostakovich? No, not even like Khrennikov. On the whole, Chinese music lacks the irony, bravado and self-indulgence that permeate their Soviet contemporaries’ works.

Other readily available mid-century pieces include the overblown Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto (1959; Naxos 8.557348, et al.), and the committee-composed Yellow River Piano Concerto (1969-70). These are gaudy, romantic pieces, unremittingly optimistic, conservative and shot through and through with traditional-sounding melodies. Writing about the piano concerto for the New York Times on the occasion of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s 1973 celebrated visit to China, Harold C. Schonberg called it “movie music” and “a piece of trash.” Reminiscing a decade later, Schonberg said: “It was one of those awful ideologically approved pieces of Socialist-realism propaganda, but it was so bad it actually had kitsch value, and it did have a glittering and rather difficult piano part.” I judge it one step up from the cloying violin concerto, the sort of thing Esquivel would have arranged. Serial music only became permissible after the Cultural Revolution. A recent example is Zhu Jianer’s 1990 Fourth Symphony (Marco Polo 8.223941).

Perhaps infatuated by their rising star’s power, DG recently released pianist Lang Lang’s “Dragon Songs,” a collection of 20th-century Chinese music which opens with the Yellow River Concerto (DG 477 6490). Honesty obliges me to characterize Lang Lang’s recital as pentatonic Rachmaninoff doused with syrup. Chinese all-you-can-eat buffets across the land now have their soundtrack for the next decade. Following the concerto, the subsequent tracks are delightful fluff that could be mistaken for folksy Albéniz, Dvorak, Rimsky-Korsakov, or even an enlightened Klezmer session. Chinese music locked into Western scales and intonation and forced to shed its microtonal inflection and expressive portamento can sound brittle and saccharine. On European instruments, Chinese tunes narrowly avoid self-parody. Think of children discovering the piano’s black keys. Lang Lang’s fluttery touch provides a springboard for sunny virtuosity.

Tan Dun came of age during the Cultural Revolution’s worst days, his career only fully under way during the post-Cultural Revolution’s warp-speed changes: artistic, social and political. He was among the newly reinvigorated Beijing Central Conservatory’s first composition class (which included Chen Yi, et al.), at a period when Western ideas, including 20th-century music in all its flavors, resurfaced. Quite understandably, any artist who survived the Cultural Revolution probably can’t help looking back over his shoulder or hunger for that headlong rush into new territory. During his first year at the Central Conservatory, Tan Dun apparently wrote a piece called I Dreamt of Chairman Mao, understandably now omitted from his catalog. There was even a six-month ban on Tan Dun performances in 1983 due to the perceived “boundaryless thinking” of his 1982 string quartet, Feng Ya Song. Clearly he is no stranger to controversy. In this light, much of Tan Dun’s music takes on an individual significance. The 2002 The Map, which blends a solo cellist, orchestra and video footage of ethnic Chinese musicians, sounds to me free of politics or angst. The Map seems to be something Tan Dun wanted to write irrespective of its nationalistic potential. Consider an irony: A prevailing Cultural Revolution doctrine held that all musical problems could be solved by decamping to the countryside to experience life first-hand instead of applying formal education or diligent practice. The Map’s Asian premiere was in Tan Dun’s home village, effectively bringing big-city technology and an orchestra (and a film crew to document the spectacle) to provide his rural neighbors with their first symphonic experience.

An earlier Lang Lang collection, “Lang Lang Live at Carnegie Hall,” (DG B0002047-02) includes Tan Dun’s Eight Memories in Watercolor (1978-79; rev. 2003). Consistent with the composer’s earliest American works, these pieces stand in the West facing east, participating in a predominantly European recital. It’s a “native” piece which raises eyebrows: “Lang Lang Live” closes with the miniature Horses for piano and erhu (with Lang Guo-ren, the pianist’s father). A crowd-pleasing geegaw, this East-West blend superficially combines two thousand-year-old traditions. For pure audience enjoyment, it is as satisfying as the Tan Dun, Schumann or Liszt on the same recital, and perhaps that’s all that matters. Maybe critics went to the Met expecting The First Emperor to sound like the piano and erhu trifle. I can imagine someone accustomed to the cheesy Hollywood Yellow River Piano Concerto being nonplussed.

A new Chinese generation is spilling onto the world’s stage, the first to have grown up without the Cultural Revolution’s damaging influence and then permitted to explore both Chinese and Western repertoire and innovations without fear of compromise. I wonder whether China’s Rite of Spring is yet to be written. Perhaps we should also be hoping for the Chinese Partch, Scelsi and Nancarrow — the point at which the “Chinese” designation should no longer be necessary.

“The Met’s aim, of course, is for every opera we commission to be an enduring artistic and popular success…” — Peter Gelb

I have no doubts that the Met is in the business of filling seats, and that new operas, untried and unknown, are risky. With a tradition of lukewarm premieres, whose most famous casualty may be the Sept. 16, 1966 unveiling of Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra, the Met appears untroubled by its commissioning legacy.

I may wish for St. Francis of Assisi, Die Soldaten or Le Grand Macabre, but understand that potentially alienating works can’t fill the house. Perhaps some valiant benefactor can step in to cover the loss, or maybe the Met should launch a partnership with a smaller, more agile venue for mounting Messiaen, B.A. Zimmermann and Ligeti. The Met’s Lincoln Center neighbor, the New York City Opera, did stage Die Soldaten in 1991. I’d also like to see Saariaho and Czernowin in New York. (Neuwirth did make it this season.) Obviously, Lachenmann is unthinkable. Wonderfully, Levine holds sufficient sway to ensure performances of the highbrow Moses und Aron and Harbison’s The Great Gatsby. I’m certain that the Met’s commissioning program endures close scrutiny nowadays. Who can forget what happened to Jacob Druckman? I can’t help dreaming about a double bill for Carter’s centenary which ought to displace the beloved Cav/Pag: Carter’s What Next? and Feldman’s Neither.

The Met has planned Glass’ Satyagraha for April 2008, Adams’ Doctor Atomic for the 2008-09 season, and a Golijov commission for 2010-11. Something with Wynton Marsalis is in the works. If Adams and Glass presumably possess popular appeal, can Nyman and Andriessen be far behind? Perhaps the Met thinks crossovers or hybrids are a good risk, hence Tan Dun, Golijov and Marsalis. As if to prove the point, Corigliano’s 1991 The Ghosts of Versailles, with characters plucked from Mozart and Rossini’s Figaro operas, returns in 2009-10.

As Tan Dun demonstrates, hybrids may fill the house but don’t guarantee a thriving repertoire. The Met may have found a winner with Golijov, who has so far kept quiet about his upcoming project. To judge from Ainadamar (2003, rev. ’05, DG B0006429-02), it ought to be compelling. Looking beyond the Grammy-nabbing release’s questionable production qualities, disorienting flamenco whirls and neat electroacoustic touches, Ainadamar contains several dramatic set pieces, most memorable the “Confesión” whose gentle strings, recorded tape and soloists elegantly flow into a heightened interlude representing poet Lorca’s execution.

I have no difficulty climbing down from my “Zeitgenössische Musik” soapbox when visiting the Met. I go because I’m assured of great music and first-rate performances. Recently, I saw Verdi’s somber Simon Boccanegra, a work about which I knew nothing. Angela Gheorghiu, Marcello Giordani, Thomas Hampson and Ferruccio Furlanetto were in fine form, and the Met orchestra under Fabio Luisi was superb. Maybe we’ll all think differently about The First Emperor when it returns.