New Sounds in San Francisco Opera???

photo by Terrence McCarthy
Zheng Cao, left, and Qian Yi in the San Francisco Opera production of "The Bonesetter's Daughter."

The Bonesetter’s Daughter opened in San Francisco this weekend and the reviews are out. Unfortunately, they are not as glowing as I’d hoped. The libretto by Amy Tan (based on her novel of the same name), is centred on three women, blending American and Chinese cultures. The collaboration between Tan and the music by Stewart Wallace. Stewart traveled to China on several occasions to learn about Chinese music incorporating a variety of percussion into the final score and creating a "wail of authentic Chinese trumpeting and the sizzle of exotic percussion." according to Alan Rich of

Mark Swed, a Times music critic, was complimentary of Wallace's music saying, "The sounds of Chinese opera pervade the entire work. Except in minor instances, the Chinese characters are portrayed by Chinese singers, and the swooping character of their native music frequently infects their vocal lines. Wallace plays the same magical musical trick on the instrumental side. His lean, simple and direct style allows him to comfortably mingle Asian techniques with Minimalism, swinging pop and a considerable amount of sweeping Straussian vocal writing for the three women." While Mr Swed describes it as "essentially conventional Western opera," in the end he said, "there is a lot to like here, especially in a score with so much exotic ear candy."

Joshua Kosman, the Chronicle Music Critic, very much liked the opera. "With its restless energy and its canny melding of Chinese and American artistic traditions, 'Bonesetter' is a far cry from many an operatic premiere."

Anthony Tommasini of the New York Herald Tribune writes, "the vocal lines meander and the orchestra gets stuck in repetitive eight-note ostinato patterns, with thick-layered sustained harmonies quivering above. What was surely intended to be a haunting scene comes across as amorphous." Mr Tommasini goes on to say, "by immersing himself in Chinese music, he seems to have given a fresh, pungent jolt to his musical voice." While Mr Tommasini comments that the audience gave the writers and cast a prolonged applause, he feels it doesn't quite live up to its potential.

Richard Scheinin of the San Jose Mercury News thinks, "The score has compelling moments, but — dare I say it? — where's the melody? This is opera, after all. Speech-song (it spools on and on here) and innovation are fine, but when this production has come and gone, which musical moments will stay branded in our brains? When the opera is released on CD, which tracks will we immediately want to hear and hear again? Not many, I suspect."

Alan Rich liked some of the score, but not others. "East and West do not quite meet, and too much of Wallace's score is, once again, merely the work of a clever New York- oriented manipulator. There are a few moments that grab the attention -- particularly the music for a ghostlike character, Precious Auntie, who delivers her imprecations suspended high above the stage, trailing her silken rags in a colorful cascade." Overall he felt the music was "tedious."

The Chinese-born director and choreographer Chen Shi-Zheng, who previously directed the Manchester International Festival premiere of "Monkey: Journey to the West," creates an array of Chinese acrobats, much like in "Monkey", but not all reviewers felt he succeeded. Mark Swed comments, "Chen's production is elaborate. It includes a superfluous troupe of flying Chinese acrobats, superfluous filmed projections and special effects."

All of the reviewers were luke warm in their glow about the productions, speaking highly about some parts while feeling other aspects let them down. Perhaps it was not enough money (as Mr Swed suspected), perhaps it was a bold attempt at blending Chinese and American culture (but not bold enough as Mr Tommasini surmised), or perhaps it was like Mr Scheinin thinks, "the music doesn't stick to the ribs."

I am traveling out to San Francisco this week and will attend the production myself. One, because, even after all of what these reviewers have said, the overall feeling is that this is a good attempt, and perhaps after a first run it will come into it's own. And two, all of the reviewers enjoyed the production. Perhaps they felt it could have been (should have been) more, but that doesn't take away from their obvious appreciation for what they did see. So, while it may not be perfect out of the gate, it is well worth going to see. This is new opera and perhaps is a glimpse at what more is to come.


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