Justin Lin gets the credit for making Asian America cinema hip, but some recent DVD discoveries provide concrete proof of our cultural amnesia..
Ritzy dresses and fancy suits danced across the red carpet, looking pretty for photographers, before proceeding to a lavishly adorned night honoring the accomplishments of Asian Pacific Americans in Entertainment.
APA's look back on the year in film, TV, fashion, and more.
Subscribe to the APA Newsletter
The usual suspects of Asian high culture -- Tan Dun, Zhang Yimou, Ha Jin, Emi Wada -- show up for something a little unusual: one of New York's most talked about operas in recent years.
Tan dislikes the term "fusion" to label his works. He thinks his works are created through a more organic process -- the confluences and clashes of East and West operatic and theatrical techniques. This is evident in his avant-garde approach to his previous works, such as Paper Music, Tea: A Mirror of Soul, and the multi-media cello concerto The Map, which creates borderless musical dialogue between aboriginal tribes in China and orchestra in New York.
"I hope to create a new form of theatrical tradition, a new language in which each individual component becomes indistinct and inseparable from the other parts," he says. "No matter how many new creative elements and music languages I introduce into the Western opera, essentially, I seek to achieve an ultimate artistic goal -- one plus one equals one. The opera tradition stays but also forms a new one," he explains.
To achieve this interaction, Tan incorporates Peking opera into The First Emperor. "I love both Western opera and Peking opera. I find them very dramatic, theatrical and colorful," he says. "Each also possesses unique qualities -- the Western opera has beautiful vocal lines while the Eastern opera has ritualistic percussive energy," he explains. "It would be artistically challenging but fulfilling to link them together. But a new opera language is formed out of the two distinctions."
This idea is best illustrated by the dramatic singing of Taiwan's Peking opera master Wu Hsing-kuo, who plays the prophetic Yin-Yang master in the Qin court. Wu is best known for his avant-garde theatrical experimentations. He once borrowed Peking opera techniques to perform Shakespearean plays -- a bold attempt which won him much accolades in Taiwan.
But working for Emperor still proves to be a challenge for the seasoned dramatist. "There's no score for my Peking opera tunes. I have to improvise on stage, matching to the irregular rhythm of Tan Dun's modern music while trying to blend in with the orchestra music. It's no easy task," says Wu.
Set designer Fan Yue says the simplistic, but versatile set design and staging draws from Eastern abstract and minimalist aesthetics. He compares his spatial movements to Chinese traditional ink paintings. Instead of embellishing the stage with a lot of props, it's more important to leave blanks. "If one draws shrimps on the page, you know right away the blank space is water. Likewise, Chinese artists and playwrights give you just enough hints on stage, the rest is left to an audience's imagination," he says.
He disapproves of the clumsiness of some Western operas and musicals, for instance, the dragging of camels and building of giant pyramids in Aida. "You want to talk about interactions? Chinese operas and theatres have been doing it since centuries ago -- it's nothing new," he explains. "It's all in an audience's mind. If you want to enjoy the performance more, you [the audience] have to think and work harder. I give you half and you have to contribute the other half."
As the opera crowd is shrinking in the West, major opera houses worldwide have been using new ways to inject new energies into this traditional art form. Most notable is the Met's huge promotional campaign to bring in a new audience -- through a live broadcast of Madame Butterfly at Times Square and the launch of affordable rush-tickets last fall.
Director Zhang Yimou believes it is crucial to reinvent the Western operatic traditions and make it relevant for modern times. "Opera is an elitist art form in the West. It has more than 400 years of tradition but is now facing a lot of challenges. I hope our opera can create a new incentive and attract more people to enjoy the musical and visual wonder," he says.
The First Emperor is Zhang's second foray into opera after revamping Puccini's Turandot at the Forbidden City in 1999. "Honestly, I know nothing about [Western] opera. I just treat it as Peking opera and make sure there's a continuous visual dynamic of exuberant colors and interesting movement on the stage," he says.
As a Shaanxi native, Zhang is a descendent of Qin's empire. He jokes that his relationship with Tan is "a tug of war." "Tan is from Hunan, so he's a member of ancient Chu. Our ancestors were fighting all the time."
But in real life, the duo have been friends for more than 20 years, and Tan has written many film scores for Zhang's works including his martial arts blockbuster Hero, which also probes into the life of the Emperor Qin. "This time, it's the other way round. Tan Dun is the boss and I'm here to do everything I can to serve his music," he says.
Sweet and sour
The daunting project has sparked controversy and generated mixed reviews since it premiered in New York last December, leading many to wonder what could have been lost in translation.
Despite its commercial success -- all nine performances of the US$2 million-opera were sold out months before the show premiered -- The First Emperor failed to be a crowd-pleaser.
Most Western music critics and American mainstream press snubbed the production. New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini called the piece "an enormous disappointment" and says: "The more The First Emperor sounds like Crouching Tiger the better; the more it sounds like updated Turandot, the more tedious it becomes." Bloomberg's sarcastic music critic Manuela Hoelterhoff's "favorite scene" was composer Gao Jianli's tongue-biting mutilation, since "it meant no more singing and a curtain coming." Associated Press writer Martin Steinberg wondered "where were the memorable melodies to take home?" after watching the "fascinating but flawed" opera.
Regardless, the opera's marketing success taps into the public's hunger for original opera productions while cashing in on China's mysticism. As a case study of East-meet-West cultural collision, Johnny Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn" seems to ring true: "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter".
The First Emperor plans to tour Los Angeles and Beijing in 2008.
Page 1 | Page 2
Date Posted: 1/26/2007