紅樓夢 – Dream of the Red Chamber

The second weekend of September, I joined my parents in San Francisco for the premiere of a new opera, Dream of the Red Chamber, based on the 18th century Chinese classic 紅樓夢 (Dream of Red Mansions) by Cao Xueqin. The Chinese Heritage Foundation, a Minnesota organization, commissioned the opera, and the San Francisco Opera produced it. The music was composed by Chinese-American composer Bright Sheng, and Sheng collaborated with Chinese-American playwright David Henry Hwang on the libretto.

This was my third trip to San Francisco this year, and this time, instead of flying, I took Amtrak’s Coast Starlight up the coast. It’s an 11-12 hour journey one way between Los Angeles and Oakland. I brought the first two volumes (out of three) of Gladys Yang and Yang Xianyi’s English translation of A Dream of Red Mansions to read on my trip.

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Ocean view on the Coast Starlight

The evening before the opera premiere, there was a Chinese banquet for the Minnesota delegation to the premiere. I tried abalone, sea cucumber, and bird’s nest soup for the first time. I was also seated next to Kevin Smith, former director of the Minnesota Opera and current president of the Minnesota Orchestra! He played a crucial role in making Dream of the Red Chamber a reality.

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My banquet place setting

The morning of the premiere, we went to the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park.

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Japanese Tea Garden

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Lotus painted on the ceiling of the gate

In the evening, we arrived at the War Memorial Opera House for the performance. I said hi to David Henry Hwang in the lobby! The production was spectacular, particularly the sets. The score was Western, but there was a qin in the orchestra. The libretto was in English, and there were both English and Chinese surtitles. I amused myself during the opera by attempting to read the Chinese and comparing it with the English. Now and then I could read an entire Chinese sentence, and I also noticed places where the English and Chinese differed (e.g. while the singers said “Red Chamber” the Chinese might say 大觀園).

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Opera togs

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On our way from the opera house back to our hotel, we wound up in the cab of a (white American) taxi driver who turned out to speak Mandarin. He kept up a stream-of-consciousness monologue about the Dowager Empress Cixi selling Taishanese people to the U.S. to build the transcontinental railroad, Ho Chi Minh, and his college Chinese professor’s hatred of 廣東話 (Cantonese). That is, when he wasn’t asking us to explain the character , the second character of Cixi’s name, to him.

I had only read about 26 chapters of the novel when I saw the opera. Now I’m on Chapter 59. I hope to finish one of these days!

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