Bay Area author Amy Tan is a critically acclaimed novelist with a literary resume that includes The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God’s Wife, The Hundred Secret Senses and, more recently, The Bonesetter’s Daughter.
Like Tan’s other novels, The Bonesetter’s Daughter revolves around the complicated relationship between an immigrant Chinese mother and her American-born daughter. But this story is Tan’s most personal, written while her mother was dying of Alzheimer’s disease. During her mother’s illness, Tan learned more about her family history, in particular about her grandmother, who took her own life when Tan’s mother was young after being raped by a wealthy man. In Tan’s story, the ghost of the grandmother leads the daughter to learn the secrets of her mother’s past.
For her birthday in 2001, Tan’s friend and composer Stewart Wallace turned the first few lines of The Bonesetter’s Daughter into an a cappella musical composition for three women’s voices. Wallace composed the piece without reading the book and was unaware that the story coincidentally revolved around three main female characters. Tan was pleased and surprised by this musical offering, and Wallace was unable to get the story and music out of his head. This musical gift became the seed of inspiration for what was to become a full-length opera.
Tan became the librettist for the opera. She and Wallace embarked on a five-year collaboration that involved several trips to China to explore Chinese music and culture. They visited towns and villages, and attended gatherings where traditional Chinese music was performed, including a rural funeral. They listened to Chinese musicians and instruments, and were introduced to professional Chinese opera singers and conductors who understood how the music, lyrics and emotional heart of the story are intertwined. In the process, Wallace discovered how to evoke the spirit of China in his score by incorporating Chinese instruments and sounds into the musical narrative.
Bringing the opera to the stage of the San Francisco Opera has required the talents of hundreds of American and Chinese singers, musicians, acrobats and behind-the-scenes personnel, including director Chen Shi-Zheng, who directed The Peony Pavilion (a 19-hour Chinese opera that previously had not been presented in its entirety for 500 years); Li Zhonghua, master percussionist and director of the Beijing Opera; mezzo-soprano Zheng Cao (she played Suzuki in The San Francisco Opera’s 2007 production of Madama Butterfly); mezzo-soprano Ning Liang, who plays the mother; and the star of The Peony Pavilion, Qian Yi, who plays the role of the ghost of the grandmother.
The end result of this highly collaborative effort is a distinctly American opera with its roots in traditional Chinese music. It is a compelling account of a contemporary human story that merges the past and the present, love and loss, grief and forgiveness, as expressed through Chinese and American voices.