Photo Journal: The First Emperor Reprises Reign at the Met

Classic Arts Features   Photo Journal: The First Emperor Reprises Reign at the Met
Tan Dun's innovative opera, which enjoyed its world premiere at the Met last season, has returned for a 3-performance run with Plšcido Domingo reprising his starring role as China's real-life first emperor Qin Shi Huang.

The epic two-act work - sung alternately in Chinese and English - is based upon Sima Qian's Records of the Grand Historian and the 1996 film The Emperor's Shadow by Wei Lu. It is the fourth full opera by the famed Chinese composer most widely recognized for his unique symphonic pieces and such film scores as Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Press notes describe it as such: "Inspired by the musical languages of both East and West, The First Emperor weaves a tale of friendship, love, and betrayal around the visionary but brutal historical leader who unified ancient China and began construction of the Great Wall in the third century BCE."

Billed as "an epic historical pageant of ancient China," the story revolves around the relationships between Emperor Qin, Gao Jianli (the musician he chooses to compose an anthem for the newly-formed empire), and Princess Yueyang, Qin's crippled daughter.

This production brings with it a rather interesting history- in both the literal and the creative sense. The opera's central character (sung by Domingo) is the man who united the warring states of China for the very first time in 221 BCE and proclaimed himself the first emperor, establishing the groundwork for an empire that would endure for 2,000 years. Beyond starting construction of the Great Wall in order to stave off invasions, Qin has notably been credited with building a system of roads and with the standardization of writing, measurements and currency.

So how does this legendary Eastern historical figure inspire a modern opera to blossom at the very heart of the Western world?

In what would eventually bring together several of China's greatest creative talents, the initial idea for the piece came about in 1996 when the Met approached Mr. Tan about composing a new work. Wei Lu's movie ultimately informed his decision to base the project around the theme of Emperor Qin.

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Tan Dun
photo by Nan Watanabe

Tan co-wrote the English libretto with award-winning Chinese novelist Ha Jin (Under The Red Flag, Waiting). He chose for his stage director no lesser a talent than internationally acclaimed filmmaker Zhang Yimou, whose body of work includes such iconic cinematic pieces as Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern and The Story of Qiu Ju (not to mention his latest gig producing the opening and closing ceremonies for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.) Tan and Zhang had previously worked together on the film Hero, which focused on an earlier period of Emperor Qin's life. Early developmental workshops of The First Emperor took place largely in Shanghai.

Dou Dou Huang is the choreographer, with set design by Fan Yue, costume design by Emi Wada, and lighting design by Duane Schuler.

Ten years of work finally culminated in a triumphant world premiere at the Met in December 2006, conducted by Tan Dun himself. Interestingly, while Plšcido Domingo has enjoyed a 40-year history performing on the Met stage, Emperor Qin is the first role he has ever premiered with the company.

In this brief return engagement, Domingo is joined by soprano Sarah Coburn as Princess Yueyang, tenor Paul Groves as the composer Gao Jianli, mezzo-soprano Ning Liang as the Shaman, mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer as the Mother of Yueyang, Chinese baritone Haijing Fu as the Chief Minister, Chinese bass Hao Jiang Tian as General Wang and Peking Opera performer Wu Hsing-Kuo as the Yin-Yang Master. Not all premiered their respective roles, but each was a member of that original cast. Tan Dun returns to conduct the three performances.

What's more, the composer has not stopped working on the piece, and Met audiences can expect to see significant revisions this time around.

"I had three essential aims in mind when making changes to The First Emperor," says Tan. "To begin with, I wanted to enlarge the traditional Chinese elements: the Peking Opera-style scenes and the character of the Shaman. Secondly, I aimed to make the story more cinematic, more sensual, particularly the love scene where Princess Yueyang regains the use of her legs. And, finally, I emphasized the world of the emperor's family in the context of the geo-political drama. To accomplish this, I added an aria for Yueyang's mother in which she goes right to the heart of the emperor's dilemma. She sings 'You have power again, but I have lost my daughter. You will conquer the world, but you will lose your humanity.' I feel that the color, philosophy, and story are in much better balance."

The two remaining performances of The First Emperor will take place Wednesday, May 14, at 8:00 PM and Saturday, May 17, at 1:30 PM.

The May 14 performance will be broadcast live on SIRIUS Satellite Radio (Channel 85), and the Live in HD filming of the world-premiere run will be released on DVD this fall.

Read Domingo's thoughts on The First Emperor and the importance of contemporary opera in Elena Park's Playbill Feature, Domingo Talks.

For more information and tickets visit

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All photos by Marty Sohl for the Metropolitan Opera.

Plšcido Domingo (center) and company
Plšcido Domingo as Emperor Qin and Sarah Coburn as Princess Yueyang
Paul Groves as Gao Jianli
Sarah Coburn as Princess Yueyang
Sarah Coburn as Princess Yueyang
Paul Groves as Gao Jianli and Sarah Coburn as Princess Yueyang
Wu Hsing-Kuo as Yin-Yang Master
Susanne Mentzer as Mother of Yueyang and Plšcido Domingo as Emperor Qin
Wu Hsing-Kuo as Yin-Yang Master
Ning Liang as the Shaman
The company of Tan Dun's The First Emperor
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