The First Emperor

We went to see The First Emperor on Monday night. It’s the new opera by Tan Dun with a libretto that he co-wrote with the novelist Ha Jin. The production was designed by film director Zhang Yimou. If that’s not enough stars for you, the title role was written for and sung by Placido Domingo.

All the buzz surrounding the premiere--including the on-stage interview with Ha Jin--back in December led me to buy tickets. The review in The New Yorker was lukewarm, but in a way that didn’t concern me: the reviewer’s quibbles were beyond my abilities to grasp opera. He did say that an Italian singing in English while pretending to be Chinese strained credibility. I think this is a silly and vaguely racist criticism. Good grief: it’s opera! Credibility?

At intermission, we ran into friendly acquaintances. “I’m not feeling it,” she said. And I kind of agreed.

By the end, I was totally moved.

First of all, I judge an opera a success if I am not fidgety. My standards are not so high. I want good singing, pretty music, and some dazzling things to look at along the way. The First Emperor had all of that and more. I loved it. The more I think about it, the more excited I get. I did not fidget. When I did check the time, I was shocked at how much had passed.

The opera tells the story of the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, who oversaw the building of the Great Wall of China and those hundreds of terra cotta soldiers. The opera is about the building of the wall and his commissioning of an anthem worthy of an emperor. He tracks down his boyhood friend (and cell mate from prison), a musician, and forces him to write the anthem. The musician seduces the emperor’s daughter (who is engaged to marry a general).

So, that’s where we are at the end of Act One: firmly in the midst of an opera that promises to end badly. (It does.) Oh, it’s grand. When the musician and the princess first come together, they’re all in white on the stark gray set. Suddenly, a long red silk scarf appears and they dance with it. Walking in, the emperor is at first overjoyed to see the princess, long an invalid, so happy but the red scarf enrages him: like a bull, he turns on his friend. How dare you ruin my daughter and shame me!

From family circle Row K (there is no row L--we were second only to the standing-room folks--but hey, it’s only $15!!) of the Metropolitan Opera House, the visual poetry of it was glorious, a little silly, and very operatic. Three hours seems like a fine length for an opera--or anything--to me. Still, some of the prettiest arias and duets went way too fast: they should have been doubled over, played with, repeated, allowed to build and flow. I wanted more of a chance to learn them, I wanted more of a chance to hear the tunes. But Tan Dun’s music is great--I knew I would love it and I did. He has figured out a way to mix Chinese and Western sounds in a way that is lovely and beautiful and harmonious.

And then, in Act Two, suddenly, there is color.

Other good things: a singer from the Beijing Opera, singing in Chinese (the rest of the opera is in English). An acrobat-dancer. Drums on stage in the opening scene. A giant (8 foot?) Chinese gong, studded and mottled, just on the edge of the stage, which gets played with a giant pole. Watching Placido Domingo, respendent in a gold lame robe, bang the gong. An amazing chorus. Costumes that are different front & back. A very, very pretty pink dress for the princess in Act Two. Tan Dun himself conducting. A completely, totally full house. Walking out, hearing a beautiful woman, 50-ish, say, in gorgeously clear Chinese “…ting chang-chang ge…” (listen sing songs--about all the Chinese I remember from a year in college) and then hearing her teen-age son, already plugged into his iPod, say, “Listen, mom, the story was great, but the music sucked.” With heavy Chinese accent, she answered, “I cannot agree.”