Opera advance: ‘Tea: A Mirror of Soul’

Feast for the senses

Tan Dun’s “Tea: A Mirror of Soul,” making its East Coast premiere with the Opera Company of Philadelphia, combines Western lyricism with Asian motif for an opera sure to defy expectations.

By Naila Francis

It’s being billed as an opera for non-operaphiles.

When the Opera Company of Philadelphia presents the East Coast premiere of Tan Dun‘s “Tea: A Mirror of Soul” at the Academy of Music this weekend, artistic director Robert Driver expects that even the most lukewarm fan of the genre will be captivated.

“Tea,” after all, is nothing like what the company has offered before, though it has presented two other new works — the widely acclaimed “Margaret Garner” and “Cyrano,” a re-imagining of the romantic favorite — in the last few years.

But from its very beginning, “Tea” — with an English libretto by Tan Dun, who won an Oscar and a Grammy for his soundtrack to the film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and Xu Ying, resident playwright for the China National Opera and Dance Drama Theatre — asserts its bold distinctiveness.

“It begins with some very unusual sound effects,” says Driver, who attended the opera’s U.S. premiere at the Santa Fe Opera Festival three years ago. “I’ve been producing opera for 40 years and I’d never been to an opera and have it start with bowls of water being played. It’s an unbelievable effect that just sets you up for an extraordinary evening.

“It’s a beautiful production visually, with beautiful costumes and very dramatic scenery, and it doesn’t require that you come with any preconceived knowledge or any past in (opera). It’s just a good music theater evening that anyone can enjoy.”

Tan Dun, also known for composing the logo and awards ceremony music for the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics, will actually serve as conductor for two shows this weekend, sharing those duties with music director David Hayes. While the Chinese composer attended the production week for “Tea” in Santa Fe, his Philadelphia appearance will mark his American debut conducting one of his own operas (which in addition to “Tea” include “Marco Polo,” “The Peony Pavilion” and “The First Emperor”).

That first is significant to Driver for many reasons, one being the opera’s staging at the Academy of Music, where Puccini himself sat in the audience for the Philadelphia premiere of his opera “Madame Butterfly” (based on a short story by Philadelphian John Luther Long) in 1907. Tan Dan also claims a special appreciation for Philadelphia, given that the Philadelphia Orchestra was one of the first contacts he made while still living in China as he began to immerse himself in Western music.

“One of the things I love about Philadelphia and I love about the Academy is the incredible history there and I think we have a responsibility to keep that history alive and bring in things that are of historic importance,” says Driver. “With so many favorite opera pieces, the composers are dead, but this is part of a living art form, and Tan Dun is a very with-it composer and a charming guy.”

“Tea,” which was first performed in Tokyo in 2002 (and has since triumphed across Europe and New Zealand), is the story of two lovers, a Japanese monk and a Chinese princess, who set off on a quest to find “The Book of Tea,” an ancient classic penned by the sage Lu Yu and also coveted by the princess’ brother, who mistakenly believes he is in possession of the original. The opera draws on both Japanese and Chinese tea rituals, as well as classic Chinese literary works such as “The Journey to the West” and “The Golden Lotus,” combining words and song with philosophical symbolism, aspects of mysticism and fantasy and an organic score that evokes the elements of wind, earth, water and fire.

“This opera is incredibly interesting,” says soprano Kelly Kaduce, who is reprising the role of Princess Lan, which she played in Santa Fe. “It draws on a lot of sounds from nature, which is, I think, quite unique about (Tan Dun‘s) work. He literally incorporates sounds of paper, sounds of water, sounds of rock and stone — it’s not like you have an instrument that imitates water or an instrument that imitates rock ….

“And he requires the orchestra to use their instruments in unusual ways. The clarinet players take their mouthpieces off their instruments and use them to make sounds. The orchestra even participates, chanting with us and flipping their pages in unison (to conjure the sounds of wind and rustling leaves).”

For Kaduce, whose recent credits include Rosashorn in “The Grapes of Wrath” and the title role in “Anna Karenina,” both world-premiere operas, “Tea” is more akin to performance art than opera. The effect is enhanced by the presence of three female percussionists.

“They’re kind of part of the show but not really and they secretly take part in our drama that’s going on on stage,” says Kaduce.

This production of “Tea” reunites her with director Amon Miyamoto, who is making his debut with the Philadelphia-based opera company, as well as cast members Haijing Fu, Roger Honeywell and Nancy Maultsby, all of whom were part of the Santa Fe premiere. Also coming from Santa Fe are set designer Rumi Matsui and costume designer Masatomo Ota.

The Eastern-inspired visuals, says Driver, are enhanced by the stylized acting, which also draws on Asian influence, with sharper, cleaner movements than what audiences may be used to seeing.

The singing, according to Kaduce, stretches beyond the familiar as well.

“There’s a lot of the Chinese opera influence in the singing. It really engages the extreme low and extreme high of your voice for every voice type,” she says. “We’re required to do some unusual things — whispering, repeating consonants. It’s very eclectic and quite fascinating, yet at the same time, there are some melodies that are really catchy on a first-time hearing.

“There’s so much freedom as you kind of steer away from all of the classical Western training that we’ve had. In Western music, you have stricter rules, and inTan Dun‘s music, it seems like the more you break the rules, the more interesting it is.”

But for all the intertwining of Asian motifs with Western lyricism, “Tea” still delivers a universal story.

“The essential of the story is about love and conflict and a little bit about dueling families. It’s ethereal and philosophical and the text is very poetic,” says Kaduce, “but at the root is something we can relate to even though we have all these otherworldly elements going on.”

For Driver, “Tea” offers a glimpse into Tan Dun‘s life, particularly his childhood in a rural community in central Hunan, where tea supposedly had its birth and where shamanism is an entrenched cultural belief, and ritual is a frequent accompaniment to life passages.

“That’s what I love in this case,” he says. “This (opera) really comes from his culture and his person. You’re getting a real sense that this is who he is and this is what he grew up in.”

– The Bucks County Courier Times and The Intelligencer


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