Seattle Opera’s “The Flying Dutchman”, August 2007


Review by David Gregson
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Though the page is empty…

Soon it will be full. Already the void is beginning to flood. Soon it will be swirling with words, empty though they may be — longing for fullness.

I savor the letters as they fall upon the small infinite whiteness. An “a” drifts lightly to the surface. I smell the “e”, I hear the color of the “o”. But the “i” is like the absence of “u” – which to me is living death. As Ching Fu says in The Book of Consonants, “You need a‘t’ of heavenly sweetness so that your sentences may blossom like a red flower turned white.”

“You look so pale and wan, my lover,” Lan Liu whispers in my ear. “I’ll put the kettle on the boil and we’ll both have a cuppa.” Soon she will sit upon my Lapsang Souchong as I stroke her black oolong and sip her Darjeeling — unless Earl Grey comes back too early from downtown Lipton this afternoon.

Now the words flower like pekoe in the high mountains.

Soon the page will be full of baloney. And yet, substantial, nourishing baloney like an opera by Tan Dun. It will be pure as a Zen garden. A new sun will illuminate the soul.


The New Mexico sun is accustomed to blazing down on cerveza and frozen margaritas, but never so much tea. The Santa Fe Opera’s American premiere of Tan Dun’s Tea: A Mirror of Soul inspired a large number of supplementary events intended to enrich our appreciation. A film series included such titles as Taoism in a Bowl of Water (about Tan Dun and his music); Delamu (about ancient tea trading routes); and Ye Yan and In the Name of the Emperor (two movies scored by Dun). One could consume Chinese tea and wine and attend musicological lectures on Tan Dun, or drop in on shadow-puppet performances of Tiger Tales and Birth of the Monkey King (stories referenced in Tan Dun’s work.) And the Opera’s gift shop was packed with helpful stuff, especially James Norwood Pratt’s New Tea Lover’s Treasury – which, judging from Pratt’s program essay on tea, must be excellent.

Pratt puts things in a perspective anyone can understand. Tea is an integral part of human history. A quick look around your house will turn up teaspoons, teapots, and any number of cups and dishes designed for tea service. Our country’s history of freedom began with a famous tea party in Boston. Tea is and always has been an essential part of world trade.

But can Westerners wrap their minds around the mystical aspects of the subject? That version of the Japanese tea ceremony, for instance, in which tea is sipped from an empty cup? Pratt’s fine program piece, “Lu Yu: Soul Man,” recounts a cultural, spiritual journey that may strike many as verging on the absurd. And so – with Tan Dun’s opera – one’s Zen mindset becomes highly important. All the fuss about the search for the lost Sutra, The Book of Tea, and all the crazy empty/full, oxymoronic language that goes with it may strike you as ludicrous.

However that may be, the Santa Fe production was gorgeous to look at. The stage floor itself was an installation masterpiece. The scene designs by Rumi Matsui and costume designs by Masatoma Ota and lighting designs of Rick Fischer were worth the trip to Santa Fe (and I gather many people avoided coming here just because of this opera).

The whole show was inventively directed by Amon Miyamoto. I cannot imagine Tan Dun could have been anything but delighted.

Anyone who knows anything about Tan Dun is familiar with his ritual/habitual use of bowls of water, sheets of paper, rocks and ceramics as musical/percussion instruments.

For Tea, huge crystal bowls of illuminated water were asymmetrically placed on stage along with their players. The aural/visual impact of this was both musically/dramatically effective — and to anyone sensitive to the “meaning” of noise and capable of making imaginative associations, the total impact was extremely impressive. Tan Dun’s use of paper is similarly evocative on an associative level. In this case, huge hanging sheets were manipulated, and even the pit took part by rustling the sheets of music on their stands.

I confess to having been moved and delighted by the usual Tan Dun shenanigans – and I was not immune to the many orchestral moments that superbly nailed emotional moods and tones. Lawrence Renes was the thoroughly capable conductor. What bothers me about Tan Dun’s work in the long run is a certain monotony in the vocal line. So many lines (at the least the ones I remember) begin in a long, drawn-out fashion and then conclude in a sort of slow oscillation that threatens to become a trill. On the whole, Tan Dun also bears the stigma of attention-grabbing innovation which, combined with the mystical mumbo-jumbo of the libretto, elicits the suspicion that one is being “had”. Tan Dun’s work on the whole has a sort of self-conscious, commercial polish that can be off-putting.

The opera actually has a story, believe it or not. In a marvelously mood setting prologue, Seikyo, a Japanese monk (superbly sung and acted by the top-flight baritone, Haijing Fu), recalls his adventures with the Chinese Princess Lan (the ravishing Kelly Kaduce) in search of a non-counterfeit copy of The Book of Tea. Lan’s brother, the maybe-or-maybe-not evil Prince (the excellent but oddly miscast tall, dashing Caucasian tenor Roger Honeywell), has the bogus copy and initiates Lan and Seikyo’s search for the real one. They eventually make it to the southern China home of the book’s author, but he has just died; however, his daughter (the fine mezzo, Nancy Maultsby) gives them the much-sought volume. Sadly, that tall Caucasian Prince bursts in, kills his Chinese sister (oops!) – but the spirit of tea mitigates the situation, and the stage is strewn with no further corpses.

One hates to say it, but there is less to this than meets the eye and ear. Still, I am glad I heard it in this memorable Santa Fe Opera production.


Tea: A Mirror of Soul

Music by Tan Dun

Text by Tan Dun and Xu Ying

Sung in English

American Premiere

Performance dates:

July 21, 25; August 3, 9, 15, 23

Conductor Lawrence Renes

Director Amon Miyamoto

Scenic Designer Rumi Matsui

Costume Designer Masatomo Ota

Lighting Designer Rick Fisher

Characters

Princess Lan, the Emperor’s daughter Kelly Kaduce

Lu, daughter of a tea-sage / The Ritualist Nancy Maultsby

Seikyo, now a monk, formerly a prince in love with Lan Haijing Fu

The Emperor Christian Van Horn

The Prince, Lan’s brother Roger Honeywell

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