Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

The Mirror has Two Faces

August 11, 2007

Kelly Kaduce as Princess Lan and Haijing Fu as Seikyo
Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2007

Probably the most beleaguered production at this year’s Santa Fe Opera festival is the American Premiere of Tan Dun’s Tea: A Mirror of Soul. Santa Fe has a rich and varied history of bringing both American and world premieres to the stage and it probably seemed a sure thing to schedule this opera to follow the opening of the composer’s The First Emperor, which saw it’s debut at The Metropolitan Opera last December. Perhaps what no one counted on would be how widely and often vehemently panned the newer work would be - thus leaving Tea as somewhat of an albatross around the company's proverbial neck. It certainly appears that Tea has not enjoyed the same publicity and media attention as other recent American premieres in Santa Fe. The widespread negativity about Emperor (which was often marked in both the popular press and the blogosphere with more than a hint of racism) has clearly poisoned the well.

Which is frankly a shame considering that Tea is a completely enjoyable evening at the opera. Is it a great opera? Probably not. Is it better than Emperor? Indeed. But interestingly, what Tea isn’t is radically different from The First Emperor. The two operas share far more than they differ in terms of vocal writing, pacing, and Tan Dun’s interest in the musical sounds of water, paper, ceramic percussion instruments and other objects. What Tea has that actually is different is a much more focused libretto and a staging that is both beautiful and makes far more effective use of the available space. Director Amon Miyamoto and Scenic Designer Rumi Matsui fill the stage with elements that make sense and are consistently eye-catching throughout. The smaller stage in Santa Fe allows the creative team to focus on symmetry and single large set elements in each scene without needing to fill up vast amounts of empty space just for the sake of having it filled.

The vocal performances were uniformly good especially from Kelly Kaduce as Princess Lan and Haijing Fu as Seikyo, the Japanese monk who loves her and is willing to challenge her brother's authority to be with her. Both actors were also able to convey a sense of passion and motivation throughout a work whose plot can still be somewhat episodic and convoluted.

Certainly, all of this will not please some people. For some critics, this kind of cross-cultural hybrid doesn't conform to rigidly held fantasies about European "high art." For others, including one couple behind me at the performance, Tea represents "modern music" which isn't melodic enough for anyone to "connect" with. Despite these banal criticisms though, I think Tea is a step in the right direction even if it isn't always successful. Everything needs to evolve sooner or later to survive, and Opera is no different. Involving cultural traditions and perspectives that aren't typically present is actually invigorating to the form as a whole and makes sense given the history of Opera itself. We tend to myopically forget that things have not always been as they are now. Opera has gone through several shifts, revisions, and adaptations over time in response to political and cultural forces of the time, and this time is no different. The world is certainly more connected and in some ways smaller now and the idea that opera as an art form should somehow stand apart from this process is at best naive.

Or maybe it's like the long-time Santa Fe resident next to me the following night said. Tea may be the best thing Santa Fe has ever put on the stage. While I'm not sure about that, it certainly turned out to be a very wise decision after all.

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