Bright Sheng—A Brilliant, Innovative Composer for Our Time
by Jennifer Ann Charron
Bright Sheng’s score of Dream of the Red Chamber is one of the most dynamic, yet sumptuous pieces of music I have heard. He blends western and eastern musical traditions and sounds in innovative ways. Chinese folk tunes morph into lush, multi-dimensional overtures, both expressive and unique.
Dream of the Red Chamber retells the 18th century novel by Cao Xueqin. Considered one of China’s literary master works, it’s a charming, poetic story of love and loss translated by award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang (“M. Butterfly”).
Hwang and Sheng’s libretto of Red Chamber is a distinct masterpiece. They unify their intricate, yet superb libretto with an exquisite score, making Red Chamber an operatic success.
Unlike traditional Western opera, the singing does not follow the music. The voices are layered over the orchestration and create a dissonance that some may find jolting; but I find the separation enhances the libretto and gives weight to the story. I could see how this may work against the musicians, but master conductor Darrel Ang retains perfect control.
Director Stan Lai deserves deep praise—he employs Academy Award Winner set and costume designer Tim Yip to create a lush and intricate set. Yip has created detailed drawings and commanding backdrops fused with vibrant colors. Lighting designer Gary Marder’s master craft invigorates the set’s multilayered moods.
One opulent love/sex scene perfectly illustrates the sensuality and opulence of the opera. The designers fuse deep red tones, rich lighting, and voluptuous ballet—all in sync with Sheng’s luxurious score.
The sweet root story of the novel personalizes the plot. A Taoist priest and a Buddhist monk find a sentient stone long ago abandoned by the Goddess Nüwa, when she mended the heavens. The stone falls in love with a pearl flower and his tears keep the flower alive. The two are forever joined as one in love; and through divine intervention, they become immortal.
Now humanized, the stone and flower are embodied in lovers Bao Yu and Di Yu, cousins in the Jia clan. Because of his clan’s debt, Bao Yu must marry for money, not love, and is forced to marry a rich cousin, Bao Chai. Steeped in a metaphysical framework, the tale juxtaposes Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism. All that aside, we are completely invested in Bao Yu and Di Yu’s happiness.
There is much to love in this unique opera, and the vocal talents of the singers is a real contender. Dai Yu (Chinese soprano Meigui Zhang) and Bao Yu (Korean Konu Kim), lead the pack. Zhang’s precision and fortitude in breath control is outstanding. Kim’s silky-smooth tenor reaches for the heavens.
The third point in the love triangle, Bao Chai (Chinese mezzo-soprano Hongni Wu) earns a place of affection with her voice and stage presence. Although we see her as a villain, Wu softens the emotion with a rich, yet delicate sound.
Dream of the Red Chamber is not your grandmother’s opera. While bold and beautiful in the traditional Western operatic form, Dream of the Red Chamber has delicate yet rich Eastern nuances that give this opera its luxurious sound. A unique and sumptuous evening for opera and non-opera lovers alike.
Dream of the Red Chamber –composed by Bright Sheng, libretto by David Henry Hwang and Bright Sheng, directed by Stan Lai, production design by Tim Yip, conducted by Darrell Ang, music performed by San Francisco Opera Orchestra, by San Francisco Opera. Info: SFOpera.com – to Sunday, July 3, 2022.
Cast: Meigui Zhang, Hyona Kim, Konu Kim, Karen Chia-ling Ho, Hongni Wu, Sabina Kim, Guang Yang, Francis Jue, Gabrielle Beteag, Victor Cardamone, Michael Jankosky, Timothy Murray, Gabrielle Beteag, Elisa Sunshine, and Esther Tonea.
Banner photo: Konu Kim (Bao Yu). Photos: Cory Weaver/SF Opera