The Bonesetter's Daughter

Before I launch into my early-fall New York modern dance roundup, a word about Stewart Wallace's and Amy Tan's new opera The Bonesetter's Daughter in San Francisco. I went to this with several non-objective agendas, and wound up liking it a lot more than I thought I would.

My first agenda was resentment with how David Gockley had handled his predecessor as general director of the company, Pamela Rosenberg. Pamela, now Intendant of the Berlin Philharmonic, is an old and dear friend of mine, and with a few exceptions (those damnable Germanic Fedoras in production after production, or so it seemed), I much admired her abbreviated tenure in San Francisco. In particular her big-ticket items, like St. Francois d'Assise, Le Grand Macabre and Dr. Atomic, which she commissioned. Gockley has not been exactly generous in his public comments about her.

Gockley is an odd duck, weirdly recessive in person, a curious mixture of bravery and conservative timidity (or practicality) in his policies. Like most out-of-town critics who would swan in for his premieres in Houston, I often admired them, and hence him, while regretting a certain conventionality in his choice of musical idoms, production styles and conducting. Still, he did terrific work there, and may do terrific work in San Francisco. I enjoyed collaborating with him in presenting Robert Wilson's production of Four Saints in Three Acts in 1996. But I went out to SF last month with attitude: I resented his pandering to San Francisco's often provincial, arrogant board of directors (stars! stars! stars!) and his choice, after Messaien, Ligeti and Adams, of Wallace to compose his first world premiere in San Francisco. He had turned down this project for Houston, but accepted it for SF because of that city's large Chinese population and Tan's iconic local reputation.

I went, then, out of curiosity. But also because my friend Shi Zheng Chen, whom I had hired a decade ago to direct the 18-hour kunqu opera The Peony Pavilion at Lincoln Center, and his prima donna in that production, Qian Yi, were the director and the "Precious Auntie" character in The Bonesetter's Daughter. Before I went and at lunch on the day I saw the opera, I heard from Shi Zheng of tensions backstage during rehearsals, about clashes among him, Gockley and Tan. Furthermore, I had Wallace pegged as an eclectic lightweight.

Surprise: I really enjoyed the opera and its production, as did everyone I read or talked to about it (except for Alan Rich, who ran amok in his sometimes amusingly denunciatory way; when he dislikes something, he REALLY dislikes it). Wallace steeped himself in Chinese music and came up with an idiom that was focussed and personal and never mere Chinoiserie. Tan's tale, simplified from her novel probably to its benefit, is a fraught, emotional saga of three generations of Chinese women, one dead (Precious Auntie, though there are flashbacks), one dying (her daughter, who moved to America in her maturity), and her Americanized daughter.

For me, Shi Zheng's staging captured all that beautifully, though some of the flying acrobatics looked a little gratuitous; had they been more pervasive, as he had hoped, maybe they would have stood out less. But he shaped the acting surely, and what he did with Qian Yi was magical. She was often suspended, floating in mid-air and gorgeously costumed, with her wig streaming out like blond flames. Her singing (she was lightly and unobtrusively amplified, and hence they all were) was a fascinating blend of East and West; all the singing was very good, in fact. And her upper-body movements, torso and arms and especially hands, were as exquisite as they had been in The Peony Pavilion and in all her American stage work since, most of it with Shi Zheng. She really was a ghostly presence, and to my satisfaction she earned the biggest audience cheers of the night. The final scene, as Precious Auntie leads her daughter into the shadowy darkness of death, was profoundly moving, a tribute to everyone involved. Despite my grumpy agenda going in. 

October 8, 2008 4:17 PM | | Comments (1)


A couple of people have reminded me about another Gockley/SFO premiere, Glass's Appomatox. I actually saw it, but I guess it's still as forgettable as I thought at the time.


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