Tan Dun's long new opera lost in translation

Those possibly eternal opposites, East and West, have met again in The First Emperor, a visually spectacular, often engaging, and not entirely successful opera by Tan Dun.

This new work by the winner of an Academy Award and a Grammy for his Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon film score is a hot ticket at New York's Metropolitan Opera, which commissioned the piece a decade ago. Although a few seats were available for last Thursday's opening night, the eight remaining performances have been listed as sold out since well before the premiere. Any new opera that can draw crowds has to be considered good news.


The fuss is understandable.

In addition to music by a Chinese-born composer whose appeal crosses all sorts of boundaries, The First Emperor boasts one of the biggest opera stars in the business. Placido Domingo sings the title role of Qin Shi Huang, the man who built the Great Wall and thought he could unify China for "a thousand generations." (This is the 124th new role in Domingo's seemingly inexhaustible career.)


The production team boasts another Academy Award-winner, costume designer Emi Wada, who creates splendid clothes for everyone here, and a much-honored film director, Zhang Yimou.

So there's no missing the "major event" status of this venture. And for several minutes into the first performance, it seemed as if a major opera had arrived, so striking were the sounds that greeted the ear, the sights that greeted the eye.

By the end of the evening, though, nearly 3 1/2 hours later, some of the magic had worn off. Perhaps it was just a case of suffering in translation, an awkward attempt at squeezing traditional Chinese idioms and issues into an Italianate, grand opera framework.

It's a little hard to accept the spark that drives the plot - the emperor's obsessive insistence that a childhood friend, Gao Jianli, write a national anthem for the newly organized China. That's not much to hang a long opera on, especially since we don't really get an indelible anthem when all is said and sung.

Tan Dun fills his score with startlingly colorful music and soaring, lyrical tunes. But the anthem isn't one of them. We first hear it as a song sung by the slaves building the Great Wall. The composer ends up using that song for posthumous revenge against the emperor in what should be a melodically climactic moment.

But that song is a curiously long-lined melody than meanders its way through some pedestrian poetry. (Tan Dun and co-librettist Ha Jin, a national Book Award-winner, have written an almost entirely English text that rarely soars, and often gets caught up in awkward, melismatic stretches.)

Without that big musical pay-off, we are left with just a messy denouement. It starts with two ghosts - the emperor's daughter, who kills herself rather than submit to a general her father had promised her to (she was in love with the composer); and the general, who says he was poisoned.

The composer, who had been the lover of the princess and whose attentions had cured her of a physical handicap, is so distraught at losing his beloved that he bites off his tongue and throws it at the emperor (I told you it was messy). The emperor then kills the composer and, as he haltingly ascends his throne, seems most annoyed that he never did get the anthem he wanted.


Obviously, a lot of things, real and symbolic, are going on here, and it may be that some people will think deeply about them. Others may find the sheer exoticness of it all satisfying enough.

The richness of Tan Dun's score is enough to shake the senses - the use of stones by drummers in place of sticks; the chorus, arrayed on the imposing, bleacher-like unit set that designer Fan Yue uses imaginatively, clapping and stomping in a nod to practices at the first emperor's court 2,000 years ago; the delicate combination of two harps and zheng (an ancient plucked instrument); a huge onstage bell.

The composer, who is conducting all performances of his opera, is stylistically all over the place, from Chinese-inflected melodies and harmonies to a jaunty dash of jazz/pop. It's all eminently listenable, but could use editing. The opera is neither eventful enough (at least by Western norms) nor propelled by enough character development to warrant the length.

The structure, which aims for a seamless flow in the first act, breaks down oddly in the second, where Tan Dun seems intent on showing that he can write conventional arias, duets and ensembles, complete with full stop for applause. Odder still - no shout-out aria for the emperor.

Domingo gave the assignment all he had Thursday, with singing that was robust and expressive. Bright-toned Elizabeth Futral offered a vivid characterization of Princess Yueyang, a girl-woman caught up in the first flicker of desire. Paul Groves did sensitive work as Gao Jianli. Michelle DeYoung made a vocally imposing Shaman.

Wu Hsing-Kuo, as the Ying-Yang Master, provided a wonderful jolt of Peking Opera style into Tan Dun's ambitious hybridization.