‘Daughter’ goes to the opera

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The most successful Asian American novelist of her generation, Amy Tan tests her penmanship as an opera librettist this fall, when the San Francisco Opera presents the world premiere of The Bonesetter’s Daughter, the operatic adaptation of the Oakland native’s 2001 Putnam bestseller with a score composed by Stewart Wallace.

While holding the utmost respect for the polish and clarity of Tan’s voice as a novelist, I have always been a bit skeptical of her writings. These often read suspiciously close to the admonitions and remembrances of parents and elder Chinese relatives, repackaged with great skill for maximum melodramatic impact. Most Chinese children raised by parents who survived the Sino-Japanese wars and the Cultural Revolution will tell you that they are keenly familiar with the gestalt of these tales — carrying unspeakable tragedy and suffering — which the aforementioned aged deploy with a numbing frequency as a tool to awe, preach to, strike fear in, and taunt offspring.

Still, Tan is decidedly correct when she points out that, melodramatic or not, the unarticulated truth of these stories is intensely evident in the endemic presence of depression and the dysfunctional intergenerational relationships that afflict the transplanted expatriate Chinese community of the war generation. "There are lots of tragedies in people’s lives," observes the Sausalito resident by phone from New York City. "Especially in [those of] people who decided to leave their country behind."

Local audiences have been exposed to Wallace’s music — most notably when his opera, Harvey Milk, premiered locally with the SF Opera in 1996 — but for Tan, The Bonesetter’s Daughter commission provided her with an in-depth exposure to the creative process of an entirely new medium. "When I was asked to do this opera, I was happy to turn over the story," Tan says. "I wasn’t thinking that I would be committing myself to doing a libretto."

Initially intimidated by the technical aspects, she soon found herself immersed in the process. "It’s a very free form, as a matter of fact," she explains. "It wasn’t about cutting back the novel, but rather to find the heart of the story and recreate it all over again."

At its core, The Bonesetter’s Daughter is the story of three generations of Chinese women whose secrets and unspoken traumas are carried forth between grandmothers, mothers, and daughters. In preparation for the work, Wallace and Tan traveled together to remote villages in China, attending religious ceremonies, and collecting inspiration in traditional folk music and rituals.

As a result, Wallace created a score — which will be conducted by Steven Sloane and performed by Zheng Cao, Ning Liang, Qian Yi, Hao Jiang Tian, Wu Tong, James Maddalena, and Catherine Cook — that is at times percussive and at other moments hauntingly lyrical, according to Tan. It also includes music written for the suona, a high-pitched, reedy Chinese oboe, as well as some fire-breathing drama. "We will see acrobatics," she adds. "In the beginning prologue there will be dragons: a water dragon and a fire dragon. I am a water dragon, and my mother is a fire dragon, and together we make steam." Far from the typical Chinatown parade dragons, "these will be beautiful, flying dragons made of light paper," she says, "and inside are these flying acrobats."

With martial arts and acrobatic elements integrated into the staging by director Chen Shi-Zheng, will Bonesetter carry close resemblance to a Chinese opera? "Not at all," Tan said. "There are parts of my life, which are based in China, that have been transformed into my American life. Stewart’s music includes, in the same way, those references. But they are part of Stewart’s voice now — and he has a very strong voice."

THE BONESETTER’S DAUGHTER

Sept. 13–Oct. 2, various times, $15–$290

War Memorial Opera House

301 Van Ness, SF

(415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com

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