Opera: Tan Dun / The First Emperor

In front of my TV again today with The Metropolitan Opera On Demand app blaring Tan Dun’s east-west crossover opera, The First Emperor. Tan Dun was the film composer for landmark Chinese films of historical fantasy such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero, those special effects-laden martial arts epics featuring actors jumping twelve feet in the air to kick someone in the face before disappearing over rooftops with long ribbons flying artfully after. 

This opera, Dun’s fourth, is based on the Historical Records by Sima Qian (c.145-85 BCE) and by Wei Lu’s screenplay, The Emperor’s Shadow. The storyline of this opera concerns an emperor who wants an anthem composed for his grand coronation and intends to have it written by the leading musical sage of the age. The sage, however, doesn’t want to compose music for dictators and says he’d rather die first. But then he falls in love with the emperor’s daughter, reconsiders, resulting in all the layers of drama you’d expect for a work that runs almost 3 hours at The Met. No spoiler me, so I’ll stop there and get into the thing.

The action opens with an arresting stage setup where the members of the chorus, arrayed in military gear 11 singers to a row, are set up on 13 rows of tiered scaffolding like some Ming Dynasty House of Parliament. Yeah, you read that right: 140+ singers on the stage before you even see a starring cast member. The production just grows from there, with a line of huge wooden drum players, glass bowls, zheng and other exotic instruments, and when you get a sense of the teeming mass required to put this production over this aggregation resembles not so much an opera company as an Asian-themed Halloween party at an office full of day traders.

Is there, you may ask yourself at frequent intervals in the opera’s almost 3-hour runtime, a backstage anywhere in the world large enough to hold this elite mob of musical talent?

In front of the Great Wall of Chorus came the star attractions. Ironically, in the mass of humanity that is The First Emperor the creators were stingy in doling out marquee roles – there are only five main players. As the emperor, Placido Domingo, hale and hearty at 66, was in fine commanding voice. English is not his best language but I suppose he was relieved to not have to develop a new character in Mandarin. I would have really been into seeing this all in Chinese but I guess that would be a bridge too far even for The Met. 

Elizabeth Futral plays the emperor’s daughter who is disabled. She cannot walk, so she is introduced to the stage on something resembling an oversized bamboo serving tray. What I really love about her character is not the flighty, fruity persona they’ve written for her but that wild curved golden tiara she wears. It’s really cool, too good to die with this production. If Megan Thee Stallion gets ahold of one you’ll soon see them on the heads of half the women in the country. 

Paul Groves (Gao Jian-Li), Michelle DeYoung (Shaman), and Hao Jiang Tian (General Wang) played the other three main characters. All good singers with wondrous track records of course, do I even have to remark upon it? The Met doesn’t employ bums for their multimillion dollar spectaculars. 

With the music, things are all over the place, which can be expected in a genre-crossing opera like this. I think you have to cut the composer some slack while they work out their ideas. Some passages sound like early 20th century classical opera, some like mid-20th century modernism, some soundtrack-y, some like orchestrated pop music (like in the opening to Act One’s “Zhong Guo, Zhong Guo”), while still other musical stylings – particularly the intermittent drum solos, zheng (played from the stage), and choir chants – are unique to the maestro. There are sequences in The First Emperor that approach classic operatic vocal duet or ensemble greatness but to my ears those moments are short bursts of beauty floating in a sea of exposition.

Because of this and many other aspects of the opera, a lot of the music comes off like a western mashup of Asian/western music, some passages even reminiscent of ‘exotic’ cues that Alfred Newman or Max Steiner would add to their mid-20th century scores to denote an Asian person entering the scene (which didn’t happen very often back in those ‘simpler’ times). If Tan Dun thinks it’s ok to do this, maybe our honky film composers always had it right after all?

The huge multifaceted percussion unit, constantly central to all orchestration, does something of a job of weaving it all together. In a couple of scenes there are colorful Chinese drums being played onstage facing the audience. Were those people playing glass bowls really making the sounds or were they miming? I hope they were playing, it’s great when the instruments can move onstage. The percussion section really earned their paychecks in this production. Has there ever been a percussion-only opera? I think it could work.

And in another scene there was something I’ve never seen before — the orchestra members sitting with their instruments in their laps singing rhythmic chants with the timpanists, anvils, wood blocks, and cowbells going wild. Did they get time-and-a-half union scale for doubling as vocalists?

The martial arts dancing and choreography is very well done, although on a rather one-dimensional plane as the huge terraced backdrop already noted leaves little room on the stage for movement. The costumes are wonderful, of particular note are the masks most non-starring participants wear on the backs of their heads to show a different face when they turn round.

To sum, I thought The First Emperor was worth watching; enjoyed much the change of pace and the many intriguing inventions with instrumentation and orchestration concepts. The ghost of Turandot haunts this work – but hey, if you have to copy something you could do worse than to take the last great classical opera as your point of departure.

Still, this opera is quite the ponderous, lumbering beast. To my knowledge this work has not played anywhere else since its Met premiere which speaks loudly about the difficulties of putting it on and probably indicates it will be rarely performed in the future – a 21st century equivalent of Berlioz’ Les Troyens, along with most everything by Massenet.

The scale of modern opera is growing, and in the effort to broaden the appeal it would appear that a strategy that mounting productions with Broadway-size spectacle will be the solution. My corporate metaphor is apt; there are more full-time and contract employees required to produce The First Emperor than in many corporations I’ve worked for. And like corporations, in an arts organization that aims for growth above all the role of each individual (excepting the celebrity singers) becomes more specialized and less essential. 

Consider the huge chorus, for example. Are there some chorus members in the nosebleed positions of the scaffolding who don’t sing and are just there for show? I could have sworn I saw one of the guys on the top row chowing down on a 3 Musketeers bar in the middle of a first act tutti. But institutions fanatically fixated on growth have to expect that staffing will become a major headache. They probably got him from Aquent.

But hey, Tan Dun got The Met to pony up two million bucks to put his dream on their stage and run it for 9 nights so you can’t take that away from the man. And isn’t it funny that in conducting and overseeing his work he was given a larger army than even the real Emperor Qin had under his command?

The First Emperor / Tan Dun
The Metropolitan Opera

Librettists: Tan Dun / Ha Jin
Plácido Domingo (Emperor Qin), Elizabeth Futral (Princess YueYang), Paul Groves (Gao Jian-Li), Michelle DeYoung (Shaman), Hao Jiang Tian (General Wang), Wu Hsing-Kuo (Yin-Yang Master), Tan Dun (Composer / Conductor)