Tan Dun had just one director in mind for the world premiere of his large-scale historical opera The First Emperor: his friend and colleague of more than 20 years, Zhang Yimou.
The revered 56-year-old filmmaker, best known in the West for Raise the Red Lantern and House of Flying Daggers, had directed opera before, but it was his brilliant cinematic perspective that Tan Dun felt best qualified him to work on the Met's massive stage. That, and the fact that they had already collaborated on a project about Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of the opera's title.
A different, fictionalized moment in the king's life formed the plot of Zhang Yimou's 2002 martial arts epic Hero, with music by Tan Dun. For The First Emperor, the two artists worked in tandem on the score and the staging, aiming to unite Tan Dun's contemporary musical ideas with a fresh stage aesthetic to explore the soul of the Chinese people. The director recruited Japanese costume designer Emi Wada, who worked with him on Hero, to create and oversee the hand-stitching of hundreds of authentic period costumes, and Chinese set designer Fan Yue to devise the central black aluminum staircase and rope-suspended Great Wall that dominate the Met proscenium.
"Even though we are working on a traditional opera stage, we wanted to bring freshness, a new level of energy, and a very dynamic visual component with color and movement to the production," Zhang Yimou says. "This story uses the emperor's relationship with music as a metaphor for his journey through his destiny. It's incredibly important that the rhythm of the staging complement the energy of the music. The staging, like the music, has an emotional journey."
Zhang Yimou's road to the Metropolitan Opera is itself a fantastic voyage. Born in 1950 in China's northwest Shaanxi Province, the future filmmaker came of age at the height of the Cultural Revolution and spent his school years doing peasant labor. Interested in art and photography, he eventually made his way to film school in Beijing at age 27.
He trained as an actor and cinematographer, and in 1987 directed his first movie, Red Sorghum. A bleak, atmospheric drama starring Chinese superstar Gong Li, the film opened to international acclaim and paved the way for 1991's Raise the Red Lantern, 1994's To Live, and numerous other films that were celebrated abroad but banned in China for their blunt criticism of the Chinese government.
More recently, a less overtly controversial Zhang has branched into "wuxia," or martial arts, films, putting his vivid stamp onto historical epics such as Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and Curse of the Golden Flower, which will be released this month in China and North America. Now one of the most famous men in China, he has made peace with the Chinese government and even been chosen to direct the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Zhang Yimou comes to the house with limited opera experience. His only previous effort was directing Turandot for the Florence Opera in 1997 and again the next year in a spectacular, cast-of-thousands production in Beijing's Forbidden City. He came to Puccini with a limited understanding of Western opera, and in fact, only saw his first live opera after having been invited to stage Turandot. "I was a very serious audience member," he recalls. "I studied intently during the entire performance. And when I started directing Turandot, I really didn't know how to go about it. But one day I had an epiphany: I should try to understand Western opera through the lens of Chinese-style operas. When I started to approach it with that perspective, it was as clear as day. There are a lot of similarities between the two traditions. The production will have a unique sensibility that is both Eastern and Western."
The excitement surrounding the production is similarly international. A world premiere opera at the Met generates tremendous interest here, and in China, where Zhang Yimou is a kind of rock star, the momentous event is a source of overwhelming national pride. "The Metropolitan Opera made a bold and significant move in commissioning a project where the majority of the creative team is made up of Chinese artists," Zhang Yimou attests. "It is truly a rare occasion."