Review: Brilliant “Bonesetter’s Daughter” Dazzles at San Francisco Opera, September 20, 2008

San Francisco Opera has demonstrated that a great opera company can present the mainstream treasures of the operatic repertory respectfully, yet simultaneously expand the boundaries of the operatic medium.

One year after the extraordinary world premiere of Philip Glass’ “Appomattox” in San Francisco, the company achieved an even greater success  with the world premiere of Stewart Wallace’s “The Bonesetter’s Daughter”, based loosely on Amy Tan’s novel of the same name, with Tan herself as the new opera’s librettist.

The opera’s host city, San Francisco, has had links to China since the mid-19th century, when significant numbers of Chinese emigrated to California to participate in the Gold Rush, in construction of the Trans-Sierra and ultimately transcontinental railroads, and in hundreds of other projects that built the Golden West.

In recent years, their descendants and generations of more recent immigrants have made San Francisco virtually unique among the great American cities – one in which Chinese ancestry is shared by a signficantly large proportion, nearing a majority, of its citizens.

[Below: San Francisco-born Ruth Young Kamen (at top of stage, played by Zheng Cao), comes to know and understand the ghost of her grandmother Precious Auntie (below, played by Qian Yi) and through her, Ruth’s own mother; edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Despite the abundance of relics and symbols of Chinese civilization existing in San Francisco, including North America’s most densely populated “Chinatown”, no one doubts that San Francisco is a different world from China – especially any village in rural China – and that those who have been born in and whose lives have been spent in California will see the world differently from those raised in the Old Country.

Amy Tan’s libretto about reconciliation between an American-born daughter and her Chinese-born mother is semi-autobiographical, and many of the exchanges between Ruth Young Kamen (played by mezzo-soprano Zheng Cao) and LuLing Liu Young (played by mezzo-soprano Ning Liang) have a veristic feel.

Ultimately, “Bonesetter’s Daughter – The Opera” is a fantasy in which three generations of women – Ruth, LuLing and the ghost of LuLing’s mother – Precious Auntie – interact in astonishing ways.

[Below: Ruth Young Kamen (Zheng Cao), Ruth’s mother LuLing (Ning Liang), and the ghost of LuLing’s mother, Precious Auntie (Qian Yi), reflect on issues that bind themselves to each other; edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

To produce this opera, as it is presented in San Francisco, is a formidable challenge, and likely will prove beyond the resources of all but the a few of the great international opera companies. Yet, this is an opera that might beat the odds against survival of contemporary operatic works.

(For those who despair that opera audiences fail to embrace contemporary works, consider that almost every opera ever written, save the small number of operas that are now considered “warhorses” and a few dozen others that are occasionally performed, is now lost, forgotten or grossly neglected. The “warhorses” and their sometimes-performed brethren are survivors of processes that have discarded virtually every other opera ever written.)

[Below: Mezzo-soprano Zheng Cao as Ruth Young Kamen at her mother’s birthday dinner; edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

What are the features of “Bonesetter’s Daughter” that suggest to this reviewer that it might beat those long odds against survival? Perhaps most important: it is interesting. It absorbs one’s attention.

The opera has an exotic sound that is both accessible and appealing. Composer Wallace clearly believed that he might achieve a powerful effect if he melded the sound of a highly skilled Western opera orchestra with the sounds of highly skilled performers of traditional Chinese percussion and wind instruments in a particular sonic structure that he conceived in his head.

He cannot have been sure how this melding would exactly sound like until the artists actually assembled for orchestral rehearsals. All of us know that some experimental music can be tiresome. Yet what Wallace composed proved exhilirating in performance.

The sound combinations played by the San Francisco Opera, augmented in size both by traditional Western symphonic instrumentalists and by experts in Chinese percussion and wind instruments, were truly spectacular.  Especially notable were the intensely rhythmic episodes dominated by pizzicato strings, harps and celeste from the Western group and exotic percussion instruments, whistles, and horns from the Chinese contingent.

The production was both a cross-cultural and a multimedia event.  San Francisco Opera audiences are presumably mostly unacquainted with the suona, a combination reed and horn instrument dating back millenia, which plays an important role in many Chinese operas.

To assure that the exotic sound of this instrument would be properly played, the company engaged two suonists – one of whom was Beijing rockstar Wu Tong (who sang two of the onstage roles as well as performing on the instrument).  Wu Tong and the other suonist, Zuo Jicheng, were joined by traditional Chinese percussionists Li Zhonghua, Ma Li, Nie Haijun and Jin Liang.

[Below: Suonists Wu Tong and Zuo Jicheng performing on their sounas; edited image, based on a  Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Ruthy Inchauestegui, whose gymnastic, dance and acrobatic skills have been utilized for an impressive array of performance arts from music videos and television to the legitimate stage, was responsible for the complex integration of the Dalian Acrobatic Troup – rather like an aerial trapeze act in Chinese opera costumes – into many of the mystical scenes, permitting the opera company to designate her as the opera’s aerial choreographer. Wang Yuqing, debuting with long experience in Chinese opera, along with the entire production’s Director Chen Shi-Zheng, was the choreographer of the earthbound dances.

[Below: the conclusion of an act from the production of “The Bonesetter’s Daughter”; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Leigh Haas, like Inchauestegui and Wang Yuqing, another newcomer to operatic performance, was the projection designer.  Her visual designs included giant projections of swimming goldfish (later a shark) on the back wall of the Chinese restaurant.  Combined with effective lighting designed by Scott Zielinski (another debut), Haas’ constantly moving and changing projections enhanced the operatic experience.

[Below: Suonists Zuo Jicheng and Wu Tong (the latter singing the role of a Taoist Priest) lead a procession in Precious Auntie’s rural village; edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Interesting music is a prerequisite, and the multimedia dimensions are absorbing, but music and projected images are not in themselves sufficient for a successful opera.  The story must work as well.

Although based on her novel of the same name, in the tradition of operas adapted from novels, the plot outlines have been greatly simplified and several characters in the novel disappear from the opera altogether.

The opera story, even though it was built upon very specific details in the lives of three women, is well-constructed and dramatically compelling. Beyond its theatricality, it has a universal appeal.

For “Bonesetter’s Daughter”, Tan and Wallace wrote the libretto and the music almost simultaneously, serially alternating text and music.   (The opera’s creative process was documented in a book by Ken Smith, Fate! Luck! Chance! – the Making of  The Bonesetter’s Daughter, describing joint trips to China between Wallace, Tan, author Smith and Smith’s ethnomusicologist wife, Joanna Lee).

[Below: the San Francisco Opera chorus perform ceremonies in the Village of the Immortal Heart, home of Precious Auntie and LuLing Liu; edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

vengeance against the rapist but is disfigured and disabled in the process. The daughter of these tragic  events (LuLing) in time emigrates to San Francisco.

LuLing’s own Westernized daughter, Ruth, finds her mother difficult to deal with, and the non-Chinese family into which Ruth is married is wholly unprepared to understand the psychological impact that LuLing’s early life has had on her.

The opera freely adapts some conventions of Chinese opera to tell this basic story. The ghost of the grandmother, Precious Auntie, daughter of the village’s bonesetter, is played by Qian Yi, a star of traditional Chinese opera and expert in the art of kunju singing. (Qian Yi notes that since Precious Auntie is the Bonesetter’s Daughter, she is performing the opera’s title role.)

[Below: Qian Yi is Precious Auntie, mother of LuLing Liu and grandmother of Ruth; edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

The opera’s story can be approached in several ways.  At its most basic it is about a woman in a Chinese village who is raped, and whose rape produces a daughter. The woman achieves

Precious Auntie’s ghost appears to Ruth and guides her into the past life of the Village of the Immortal Heart, the rural community into which Ruth’s mother LuLing was born. She also acquaints her with the villainous Chang (played by Hoa Jiang Tian), the village’s coffinmaker. Chang has murdered Precious Auntie’s father hoping to obtain a magic dragon bone conferring eternity, has raped Precious Auntie, thereby illicitly fathering LuLing, and then attempted the rape of his daughter as well. Precious Auntie uses the dragon bone to fend off Chang’s rape of their daughter and then to overpower and castrate Chang.

[Below:  Hoa Jiang Tian plays Chang the Coffin-maker as members of the Dalian Acrobatic Troupe of China’s Liaioning Province soar overhead; edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Although the secrets held by the elder of the three generations (that of Chang and Precious Auntie) on which this opera is centered are particularly gruesome, it is not so much the specific events that are the opera’s focus than the fact that something so horrific has occurred as to impair, first physically, then psychologically, all three generations.

Obviously, Ruth, born in the U. S. A. and living a life oblivous to bonesetting, coffinmaking and the pain that her mother and grandmother have suffered, is freed from much of the old village’s emotional curse, but at the price of being deprived of an ability to comprehend her mother’s torment.

There is a universality to the story of traumatic events psychologically impairing a member of one generation, which is kept secret from the second, and then the third.  So often, the younger generation finds the behavior of their elders baffling, when, if the younger generation could be trusted with the secrets, greater understanding might result.

[Below: Mezzo-soprano Ning Liang as LuLing Liu; edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Even with interesting sounding music and a compelling story, things still could have gone awry with the new opera, but the opera company itself invested considerable time and resources in making sure that the commissioned opera would be a success.

The sober and experienced hand of San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley – like the producer of a movie he thinks might be a blockbuster if done right but who is determined to protect the movie studio’s investment in the project (a rather precise analogy I would think for an expensive commission)  –  was there making sure his creative team was focused on the audience’s experience.

(In my review of a quite different new opera, Shore’s “The Fly” at the Los Angeles Opera earlier this month, I expressed the opinion that the resulting product showed little evidence of any substantial coordination of effort between librettist David Henry Hwang and composer Howard Shore with the objective of creating an opera whose every part would sustain the interest of an operatic audience.

Ironically, David Henry Hwang, “The Fly’s” librettist, provided an insightful analysis of the content of “Bonesetter’s Daughter” that was included in the San Francisco Opera program. In fact, Hwang’s opinions on things seem much more interesting to me when I read them as programmatic background to “Daughter” than when I hear them as opinions set to music by Howard Shore.)

The principals in “Bonesetter’s Daughter” included, as noted above, a traditional instrumentalist who sings rock music and a performer who excels in the authentic Chinese opera style. Both who amplified to maintain balance with the remainder of the principals, who are accomplished performers within the Western operatic tradition.

Two of the three Chinese-born performers, Zheng Cao and Hoa Jiang Tian, have been principals in performances reviewed on this website previously.  Cao is unquestionably the reigning Suzuki in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly”.  (I have heard it said that she would prefer something else as her signature role, but she is the first person many opera company directors think of when they set about to cast Suzuki.)

Tian is an excellent basso cantante whose voice fits many of the Verdi bass roles perfectly.  My review of his Ferrando in Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” is cited below.

I had not heard Ning Liang in live performance previously, but I was impressed by her full-bodied mezzo sound with strength in the lower part of the mezzo range. (As soon as the scheduled performances are complete, Liang travels to the Los Angeles Opera to play Suzuki there.)

The American singers importantly included Catherine Cook, herself trained by the San Francisco Opera. Cook seems now to dominate a range of lead comprimaria roles demanding vocal ability and agile acting skills. She not only played Ruth’s Jewish mother-in-law but a Chinese wife as well in the fantasy scenes in the rural village. James Maddalena, a specialist in contemporary opera, did a good job as Ruth’s supportive, but often dismayed, husband.

[Below: Ruth Young Kamen (Zheng Cao, left), as she tries to understand the issues that impact her mother’s behavior relies on the support of her husband, Art Kamen (James Maddalena, right); edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The conductor, Steven Sloane, had much more to do than to stand and waive a baton. He had the task of integrating two orchestral traditions and keeping them together.  He had to keep track of the principals and the San Francisco Opera chorus on stage, as well as the three principal ladies who were often at the top of the stage or floating through the air.

Chen Shi-Zheng, with notable experience in Western Opera in Great Britain and Europe, was the opera’s Director, and, as noted above, also one of its choreographers. Walt Spangler who has teamed with Chen Shi-Zheng on other operatic projects, was the Set Designer.

I believe the “Bonesetter’s Daughter” deserves the accolade as an unqualified success.  With the experience of live performance, there may be sentiment among the creators to nip and tuck at this or that phrase or piece of exposition, but it does have the feel of a finished product. It surely should be considered as one of the successful new operas of the first 21st century decade.

For a review of a performance with Hoa Jiang Tian, see: Nicely Done “Il Trovatore” in Verdi-Friendly San Diego – April 4, 2007

For reviews of performances with Zheng Cao, see: Puccini, Daniels, Yeargan and Racette Team for Masterful S. F. Butterfly – June 18, 2006, and:

Australia Opera’s “Butterfly” Charms Pittsburgh – October 19, 2007.