Ching Chang

‘Daughter’ goes to the opera


› a&

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."


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

War Memorial Opera House

301 Van Ness, SF

(415) 864-3330,



Like Madonna, the Labeque sisters are past 50 now, and showing remarkable artistic longevity and re-invention. The virtuoso French pianists offer a rare performance of Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos at the San Francisco Symphony’s season opener. Sept. 4–7. (415) 864-6000,


Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra opens its fall program with a gem of French baroque, Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Pygmalion. Paired on the program will be the Thomas Arne’s Comus, based on a masque by John Milton. Sept. 13–20. (415) 392-4400,


Overachiever Bayrakdarian has an engineering degree and speaks five languages, yet it is in singing that this freakishly talented young Canadian shines most brightly. The soprano perform works by Bartók, Ravel, Gideon Klein, Nikolaos Skalkottas, and Gomidas Vartabed. Oct. 4. (415) 392-2545,


Saxophone virtuoso Branford Marsalis’ love affair with Brazilian music shows no signs of waning. Here he forges a vibrant musical dialogue across the Americas, joined by members of Gil Jardim’s Philarmonia Brasileira to perform works by Villa-Lobos, Stravinsky, Bach, and Milhaud. Oct. 5. (650) 725-ARTS (2787),


The Bay Area early music ensemble Musica Pacifica recreates a typical concert by coal-seller Thomas Britton, who presented the world’s first known public concert series in London around 1678. Oct. 31. (510) 528-1725,

>>More Fall Arts Preview

Fall Arts: The year we turned to Glass


› a&

Philip Glass fans are getting ready to camp out in San Francisco this fall.

The most influential composer of the late 20th century, Glass marked his 70th birthday Jan. 31, but the celebration continues throughout the fall in the Bay Area with concerts presented by SF Performances, Stanford University’s Lively Arts, the OtherMinds Festival, the SF Conservatory of Music, and the Cabrillo Festival in Santa Cruz in what has essentially become an ad hoc Glass festival.

At the center of this pan-Bay series of performances, recitals, lectures, and seminars will be the world premiere of Glass’s Appomattox, a major new commission by the San Francisco Opera. Set to a libretto by British playwright Christopher Hampton, the two-act Appomattox dramatizes the eponymous historical battle of the American Civil War and the events leading to the surrender of Confederate general Robert<\!s>E. Lee to US general Ulysses<\!s>S. Grant.

With a loss of 600,000 lives, the Civil War is easily the most devastating event in US history — but what have we learned? "The issues that were raised at the time are very much at the heart of social change in our country today: states’ rights, racism, you name it," Glass said recently from his home in Nova Scotia. "On the good side, we are still engaged in resolving these issues. That is one of the great things about our country, that we haven’t shied away from the issues. We embraced the difficulties as we tried to find solutions. We had some measures of success and some not. But [these issues] never stopped being relevant, because they were never resolved."

Glass’s previous operas, such as Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, and Akhnaten, exude brilliant ideas and a sense of innovation, and in tandem with multimedia and experimental projects such as the high-profile cinematic Qatsi trilogy, they earned him a place among the 20th century’s great iconoclasts — not to mention a spot in the punch line to a joke on The Simpsons.

Yet Glass continues to evolve. With Appomattox, the composer has chosen a historical topic that lends itself to an arched yet linear narrative leading to a well-defined climax. And judging from his newer works, his compositional style has acquired a surprisingly lush lyricism. One might suspect Appomattox of being Glass’s first opera in grand 19th-century style, although the composer reassured those who fear he might be softening with age, "It is going to be a very confrontational piece. Some of the elements will be quite difficult for some people."

One such element is Appomattox‘s score, which integrates Old Testament hymns sung by black Southerners to welcome Abraham Lincoln during his visit to Richmond, Va.; military songs by the Arkansas First Brigade; and civil rights ballads.

"I wanted to include in the musical language the feeling and the musical culture of that time and of the present time," Glass explained. "While this was written for voices skilled in operatic singing, there are other kinds of music in this opera as well. This was for me one of the most interesting things, to try to bring together different music that would normally not be heard at the same time."<\!s>*


"Music of Philip Glass" Joined by cellist Wendy Sutter, Glass takes to the ivories in a recital of his chamber music, including the local premieres of "Songs and Poems for Cello," Etudes nos. 2 and 10, and "The Orchard for Piano and Cello."

Sept. 28. (415) 392-2545,


Oct. 5–<\d>24. (415) 864-3330,

Book of Longing Glass collaborated with singer-songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen on this multimedia work, staged by choreographer Susan Marshall, with the composer on keyboards at this West Coast premiere.

Oct. 9. (650) 725-ARTS,


Il Rè Pastore Philharmonia Baroque opens the new season with a rare performance of this dazzling gem, written when Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a mere teenager. Though the plot is a bit silly, the thrilling score is full of vibrant, infectious energy and includes a fabulous string of showstoppers that foretell the genius of the composer’s mature operas.

Sept. 22–<\d>28. (415) 252-1288,

New Esterhazy String Quartet As part of a multiyear, comprehensive survey of Franz Joseph Haydn’s string repertoire in anticipation of the composer’s bicentennial in 2009, the local string quartet offers a fascinating exploration of Haydn’s quartets against a backdrop of early American history, finding unexpected associations linking the Old and New Worlds.

Oct. 19–<\d>21. (510) 528-1725,

Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela The appointment of 26-year-old Venezuelan conductor Dudamel to the top post of music director of the LA Philharmonic shocked the American symphonic establishment, but Dudamel is the next great thing. He has proved his mettle as the guest conductor of major European orchestras and as the artistic director of the excellent Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, which recruits and grooms students from the poorest barrios in the country. They’ll perform works by Dmitry Shostakovich, Leonard Bernstein, and Latin American composers.

Nov. 4. (415) 864-6000,

For more Glass events and classical picks, go to Noise, the Guardian‘s music blog, at

The Flowering Tree


The opera world has never been quite the same since director Peter Sellars teamed up in 1985 with composer John Adams to premiere Nixon in China. The production, which was unveiled in 1987 at the Houston Grand Opera, marked the start of one of the most brilliant artistic partnerships of our time. While controversy is perennially present in Sellars and Adams’s stage collaborations, few would deny what the pair has achieved is nothing short of revolutionary.

Adams and Sellars’s collaborations — The Death of Klinghoffer; I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky, El Niño, and the massive Dr. Atomic, which had its world premiere at the SF Opera in 2005 — have redefined the musical and theatrical landscapes of the modern opera. Even more remarkable, the basis for this innovation wasn’t the European avant-garde but an identifiable and modern American sensibility. While Adams successfully integrated academic and experimental techniques with popular urban genres, Sellars explored cultural juxtapositions between the contemporary American experience (including those of marginalized communities) and the histories of people from other times and places.

This week Adams and Sellars return to Davies Symphony Hall for the SF Symphony’s US premiere of Adams’s A Flowering Tree. The multimedia performances, directed by Sellars and conducted by Adams, incorporate Balinese theater dancers; soloists Jessica Rivera, Eric Owens, and Russell Thomas; and the SF Symphony Chorus.

The new score isn’t typical of most other Adams works — it’s remarkably lyric, energized by soaring vocal passages and an ever-present feel of magical transformation. Contrary to the claustrophobic, doomsday intensity of Dr. Atomic, A Flowering Tree is a warm fable with an uplifting message of redemption, based on A.K. Ramanujan’s version of a 2,000-year-old south Indian folktale. It is the story of a young woman who can magically turn herself into a flowering tree, and like Mozart’s The Magic Flute (a partial inspiration), it explores themes of growing up, loss, hope, truth, and reconciliation. "Each work is generated from a very different impulse," Sellars says in a recent interview. "We had just worked on this intense, highly toxic opera that had lots of ticking sounds. We needed to go to the warmth and the light, with a tale existing in a springtime of its own."

Originally created for Austria’s New Crowned Hope Crowned Festival (of which Sellars was appointed artistic director) to celebrate Mozart’s 250th birthday, A Flowering Tree is infused with messages of universal spiritual harmony. "People may wince, but multiculturalism has been the reality of the world for so long," Sellars notes. "Mozart already had a global imagination under way in his Magic Flute. The opening stage direction is ‘a Javanese prince enters the stage,’ so we’ll have dancers from Java onstage with the San Francisco Symphony. For Mozart, that’s his imagination, but for us, it is actually our reality." (Ching Chang)


Thurs/1–Sat/3, 7:30 p.m., $31–$114

Davies Symphony Hall

201 Van Ness, SF

(415) 864-6000


SF Opera under the glass


› a&
There is no lack of world-class talent in the upcoming fall season, but as far as the portentous tenants in the Civic Center are concerned, the new season’s repertoire stands out as an exercise in artistic tepidness. Perhaps still traumatized by the Bush economy’s brutal impact upon the arts, the San Francisco Opera and Symphony and other big Bay Area arts presenters are taking few chances. Projects with even the subtlest hints of experimentation this season — such as the SF Symphony’s multimedia production of Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights — are being served to the public in carefully marketed packages, brandishing favorite performers with tried-and-true creative teams that have been thoroughly tested over the years.
So as the curtains go up next week, the best performance to watch may well be the one that is taking place offstage: David Gockley, the SF Opera’s new general director, heads his first full season as the top choice for the job. With the company’s somewhat contentious regime change (Pamela Rosenberg vacated the lead post last season), Gockley knows that his every move is being scrutinized by the opera world.
Rosenberg was the only woman leading a major American opera company during her tenure at the SF Opera, boldly introducing on the War Memorial stage the US premieres of major contemporary works such as Olivier Messiaen’s massive St. Francis of Assisi, György Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre, and the world premiere of John Adams’s Dr. Atomic. Even while facing the funding challenges of a deflated economy, Rosenberg chose to focus the company’s resources on creating the daring, provocative concept-driven productions that are common in Europe. Instead of squandering her production budgets on expensive star singers, Rosenberg brought a fertile artistic sensibility to the company that was wholly fresh and exciting.
Yet the lack of recognizable marquee names combined with the high level of abstraction in her productions displeased the opera’s more conservative, traditional constituencies. Typically, the anti-Rosenberg camp was made up of Metropolitan Opera–jealous patrons and the shrill, mercilessly critical traditionalists who prefer museumlike productions — the kind of stagings populated with ornate period costuming and opulent sets that are often mere vanity vehicles to glorify star singers. So, faced with the criticism of diva-starved patrons and the prospect of having to devote an enormous portion of her time on the job to fundraising, Rosenberg chose not to renew her five-year contract with the SF Opera when it expired.
Attempting to find a less polarizing replacement, the SF Opera’s search committee came up with Gockley, the highly respected former general director of Houston Grand Opera. Chief among Gockley’s strengths is the rapport he has with top talent in the field, paired with a proven ability to entice them into high-profile collaborations.
“I would like to pursue a policy of bringing more of the most prominent stars back to San Francisco, similar to the kind that the public enjoyed during the [Kurt Herbert] Adler and [Terence] McEwen years,” Gockley said in a phone interview last week. “People expect that of a great international company — to provide the big personalities and the most glamorous performers.”
Yes, the divas are back, though certainly not in the abundance suggested by the opera’s tacky marketing campaign launched during the summer season. But what could be the rationale behind the extreme conservatism of SF Opera’s 2006–07 season, in which the most modern entry is Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier (1911) and the production rosters are populated by stalwart traditionalists such as Michael Yeargan, Thierry Bosquet, and John Conklin? “This year is not mine,” Gockley pointed out, indicating that it was planned by his predecessor before his arrival.
Not unlike Rosenberg, in Houston, Gockley was also known as an innovator and risk taker. In the heart of Bush country, he ushered in Adams’s Nixon in China, a momentous premiere in the history of American opera. A few years later, his controversial commission of Stewart Wallace and Michael Korie’s Harvey Milk was picketed by the religious right.
So what does he have in store for those who actually like more daring theatrical statements?
“Nothing this year,” he said dryly. “But we have already announced a world premiere by Philip Glass [an opera based on the Civil War battle of Appomattox] for next season and will announce the new season in January. Much as I did in Houston, we will have a blend of some core and peripheral repertory work, new works, and premieres — done with great singers and great musical and theatrical values.”
In all fairness, Gockley has the difficult job of being all things to all people during this transitional phase. Of course, this is only the beginning, and before he has the buy-in from all the locals, this former Texan will still have much to prove. SFBG
Philharmonia Baroque and Cal Performances join forces to present Purcell’s 1691 dramatic masterpiece in a new, fully choreographed staging by Mark Morris. The original cast from the production’s UK premiere is featured. (Sept. 30–Oct. 7. 510-642-9988,
More than any so-called diva, violinist Hilary Hahn provides compelling evidence of the divine with her mesmerizing gifts. Appearing with the SF Symphony, Hahn is the soloist in the rarely heard Violin Concerto by Eric Wolfgang Korngold, a composer of forbidden music during the Nazi era. (Dec. 6–8. 415-864-6000,
Soprano Christine Brewer’s rendition of Isolde’s orgasmic, transcendent “Liebestod” at the end of this five-hour opera will be well worth the wait, while iconoclast David Hockney’s colorful sets will be mere icing on the cake. Thomas Moser sings Tristan, and Donald Runnicles conducts. (Oct. 5–27. 415-864-3330,
In the rarest of opportunities, the brilliant British composer and pianist Thomas Ades pays a visit to San Francisco to play a recital of his music at Herbst Theatre. Ades created a sensation when, as a fresh-faced 23-year-old composer, he premiered his opera Powder Her Face (containing the now-infamous fellatio scene) in Britain in 1995. (Dec. 9. 415-392-2545,