Ever since I can remember, I had a keen interest in Chinese culture: as a student I took a course on communist China and learned the basics of Mandarin Chinese at the Sorbonne; the first I Ching reading I received was “Crossing the great water”, which actually came through since I came to New York shortly after. I was by then fascinated by the I Ching and studied it, not on the basis of chance, but as an oracle and cosmological system, way before it became the focus of renewed interest in the new age era. The hexagram “Ta Ch’u” or crossing the great water, deemed to be very auspicious, is a good match to what Tan Dun has accomplished with The First Emperor: he crossed the cultural waters, just when we thought cross-over was over, to blend everything into one; as he said himself, “one plus one equals one”, meaning that in his work, there is a complete integration of Chinese and Western cultures – which also refers to the Buddhist concept of oneness. (Remember the Buddhist hot dog joke – one with everything?)

I was at the Met on January 13. The house was packed, completely sold out. Obviously the piece is major success for the Metropolitan Opera.
Placido Domingo was a powerful and intense presence as The First Emperor.
The cast delivered a solid performance.
The First Emperor is controversial – which makes it even more exciting.

Therefore, instead of reviewing the piece – it has garnered extensive coverage by now – I would rather suggest ways to understand it better. This new opera is based in part on ideas that have been tried downtown in the past ten-to-twenty years, but have never been fully acknowledged in the classical mainstream, therefore The First Emperor is breaking new ground on this particular territory. This opera also has uniquely brilliant ideas: the use of melisma in a semi-Chinese vocal style, along with the unconventional setting of English text; the gestural nature of the orchestral instrumentation, swelling along with the voices rather than accompanying them, then going into a silent pause, with greater focus on percussion and brass than strings; and in addition, the exotic tonal color of the instrumental solos/duets on Chinese instruments. No wonder Tan Dun had to conduct this piece himself. I doubt that anyone else could have done it justice. All in all, a piece that is easy for me to like… so I asked a few people around me what they thought. Most of the regular subscribers I spoke to found it interesting and enjoyable, even though it was somewhat unexpected.

In a way of comparison, what we appreciate in an Italian western is that slightly removed aspect that makes us aware of the quirks inherent to the western genre itself, which ultimately makes the Italian western more interesting. And maybe, just maybe, this cross-cultural rendition of the operatic form points to the weaknesses inherent to the form itself – the larger-than-life, almost ridiculous epic dimension necessary to launch a deployment of great vocal artistry. This may be why the piece is so controversial – beyond The First Emperor itself, it is the traditional operatic form presented at the Met that is put to the test, and this form appears to be really old all of a sudden. Given those parameters, especially the extra-large chorus to be employed, I think Tan Dun and his production team have done a great job, and he didn’t compromise his music: the anthem sung by the chorus, the “first anthem of unified China” could have been an easy-listening movie theme, but instead it was true to form, sounding like a somewhat monotonous, anticlimactic and not particularly memorable Buddhist chant – but wholly and completely, culturally correct.

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