"Where is the music that can harmonize heaven, earth, and man?" This is the question posed by the title character of Tan Dun's The First Emperor, which has its world premiere at the Met this month. It's a question that the composer asked himself as he worked on the score to the epic new work, which marries Eastern and Western musical elements in a tricky compositional balancing act. "It's not about being Chinese or Western, about being old or new," Tan Dun explains. "My favorite formula now is 1+1=1."
The title character's quest to unify China and find an anthem for the country is both inspiration and metaphor for Tan Dun's own journey to unite the disparate sources that inform his music into a new and integrated whole. Marco Polo, an earlier opera by the composer, juxtaposed Peking opera with the Western avant-garde, while Tea, his third opera, explored love and death with bel canto-like brushstrokes. But the momentous subject of China's founding, coupled with the monumental scale of the Met stage, demanded an entirely new approach for the composer.
Qin Shi Huang, the "first emperor" of the title, is a household name in China, a figure introduced to every schoolchild — the man who began construction of the Great Wall and gave China its name. Though based on history, the primary source material for the opera was in fact a film script.
When Music Director James Levine first approached Tan Dun to write an opera for the Met nearly a decade ago, the composer's initial idea was to base an opera on the Jewish community in Shanghai, another premise he thought would bring Chinese and Western perspectives together. But while he was researching that idea, his wife, producer Jane Huang, told him about a movie she'd just seen. She thought that its plot of power, love, and betrayal would be perfect for an opera.
The 1996 film The Emperor's Shadow was based on an original screenplay by Lu Wei entitled The Legend of the Bloody Zheng. The script, along with the ancient scholar Sima Qian's Historical Records, a survey of China's history completed around 90 B.C.E., became the source material. For help with his libretto, Tan Dun turned to the world of letters, collaborating with Chinese writer Ha Jin, who won a National Book Award in 1999 for Waiting. Working together closely, Tan Dun and Ha Jin wove the various elements together, incorporating their own unique interpretations, both literal and musical, to develop and create their libretto.
In the story, Qin Shi Huang turns to his childhood friend Gao Jianli to write an anthem for his newly united country. The composer Gao agrees to the task, but then goes on to seduce the emperor's daughter, enraging an army general who was betrothed to her. With its star-crossed love, its conflict between political necessity and personal happiness, and a final-act death, the story had all the ingredients necessary for grand opera.
No stranger to the film world, having won an Oscar for his score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Tan Dun turned to his friend and collaborator Zhang Yimou to direct. The composer had written the score for the director's 2002 action film Hero. Japanese costume designer Emi Wada, who won an Oscar in 1986 for her work on Akira Kurosawa's Ran, soon joined the project. Renowned dancer and choreographer Huang Dou Dou, acclaimed Chinese set designer Fan Yue, and veteran Met lighting designer Duane Schuler round out the creative team. The opera was developed in a series of workshops in Shanghai and New York.
The Shanghai rehearsals were accompanied by lectures and forums open to students from conservatories and universities all over China in an East-West educational exchange. Having led these workshops, Tan Dun also conducts all of the performances.
Once he settled on a story, Tan Dun began his quest in earnest, traveling to Xian, the capital of Emperor Qin's realm, to perform a kind of musical anthropology. He learned about the ceramic instruments used during the Qin Dynasty, and discovered that the music of the era relied largely on chanting and ritualistic body movements. Working from scant historical descriptions of ancient music, Tan Dun tried to imagine how music would have sounded then and envision the types of instruments that could have been used. After further investigation and thought, Tan Dun began fashioning his own musical language rooted in tradition. While cleaning the instruments he had gathered, he accidentally dropped a handful of stones onto a drum. "It made a huge, fantastic sound, and one stone kept bouncing many times — so mysterious," he recalls. "I thought, why not get rid of drumsticks?" Inspired, he wrote the score to open with 14 "stone drummers" and seven ceramic players, all of whom appear on stage.
Tan Dun also went on a hunt for qinqiang, one of the ancient Chinese vocal styles that originated in the old Qin region. "You have to go to the teahouses to find singers these days," he says. "I went in and said, 'I'll pay a lot of money to find a good singer.' About 20 of them turned up within 30 minutes."
Tan Dun's exploration of ancient forms got him thinking about his own vocal idiom. It occurred to him that ancient Chinese and Italian music sounded surprisingly close to one another. "I thought if I could combine the expressive power of Chinese singing with the long musical lines of Italian opera, it would be very fresh and exciting," he says.
What he borrowed from the Chinese, essentially, was an unusual (to Western ears) approach to vocal color and dramatic timing, both of which would be tempered by the fact that the cast of The First Emperor sings in English. The composer's coloristic demands derive from Chinese opera's attention to attack, duration, and decay in the sound. To explain this to the singers, Tan Dun, who composes music with pencil and paper, often uses non-musical examples, like calligraphy. "When they see how a brush first hits the rice paper, how the ink spreads out, how the brush pulls away," he explains, "then they understand."
In return, the singers have helped give Tan Dun a better feel for vocal placement. Plšcido Domingo, in particular, gave incisive suggestions, singing lines over the phone and even calling the composer from backstage with questions shortly before going onstage in a different role.
"I developed a friendship with Tan Dun," says Domingo, who is singing the first role commissioned for him by the Met. "He told me that it was wonderful to write something while I am still singing. We have a powerful libretto, and with the fact that Tan Dun adds so much color in the orchestration, I think the public is going to have a great, great party."
"Plšcido is concerned about vocal color and how to tell the story," says Tan Dun of the legendary tenor. "But he is also a conductor. He knows how to set up a climax so that it really registers, and then how to calm down afterwards. That makes him unique in the opera world. The difficulty is not writing a part that's comfortable for Plšcido — it's writing a role that a regular tenor can sing in the future."
Feedback from singers, Tan Dun maintains, helps in his ultimate goal of finding his own vocal idiom. And in searching for a new mode of musical expression — a literal and interior journey — he has not just created a new opera for the Met but achieved a kind of personal self-discovery.
He likens his creative process to the way Stravinsky and Bart‹k built on tradition. "My experience is different, my time is different, but the method is very much the same. You get some grounding in traditional music, and then you think imaginatively about things you want to create. Your musical language is new, but it also expands tradition. You look for something that's about the past and the future, and you end up creating yourself."