Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Skin and Bone

September 29, 2008

l-r: Zheng Cao as Ruth Young Kamen, Ning Liang as LuLing Liu Young, and Qian Yi as Precious Auntie
Photo: Terrence McCarthy/SFO 2008

There is something to be said for lowered expectations. I was actually fairly entertained by Stewart Wallace and Amy Tan’s opera The Bonesetter’s Daughter now receiving it’s world premiere performances in San Francisco. However, given that my most recent new opera experience was Howard Shore’s The Fly in Los Angeles, anything would have been a significant improvement. And so it was. Amy Tan’s melodramatic popular novel has received a full-fledged stage and musical treatment. Despite the Oprah-esque qualities of the piece, it’s not a bad little story with three generations of women uncovering their histories through a ghost story of sorts. Everybody learns meaningful lessons about their ancestry and how they got to be who they are.

But, despite this, it’s unclear that Bonesetter has much staying power. Although it is proving to be quite popular in its run in San Francisco, the opera reminds me more of another recent premiere in Los Angeles, Elliot Goldenthal’s Grendel. Like its predecessor, Bonesetter is overly reliant on a highly attractive and imaginative staging, in this instance from Chen Shi-Zheng. Floating ghosts and gowns, gorgeous bright colors, and animated video imagery drive the show despite a sometimes predictable score. Strings swell ominously in conjunction with a variety of non-Western percussion instruments. but for all the pretty angst, there's little variety to mark shifts in mood in the piece. Of course, there aren't many of those to begin with so that may be part of the problem.

Wallace has crafted an opera with a wide variety of Chinese influences after years of study and preparation. But, despite this, the music never really seems to evoke something deeper than what’s apparent on the surface. His vocal lines are reasonable, though, and they are performed quite admirably by a very good cast which includes Zheng Cao as Ruth, Ning Liang as her mother LuLing, and Qian Yi as the grandmother Precious Auntie. The vocal writing relies both on Western and Chinese operatic conditions and these disparate elements are well-integrated throughout. There are clearly rocky spots. About half way through the first Act, the rather interesting action grinds to a halt. Things pick up again later for what was an enjoyable afternoon; although honestly not one that I necessarily feel the need to repeat.



I have been searching the blogosphere extensively for classical music blogs, as I only recently learned of their existence and I have discovered already on a few occasions similar posts to this one. Less than amazing opera seems to have found a way to get on stage with dramatically higher frequency than I would have suspected. It seems, especially in these dire financial times, that unless a work is of this highest artistic caliber, it would not be seen as a worthwhile investment. Am I missing something? Is there just a overwhelming desire for modern opera, regardless of its comparison with the classics? I am aware that the Tanglewood Music Festival in Lenox, Mass. gave a number of contemporary music concerts this year and they were very warmly received. But these operas sound like they were turned out like screen plays, if you will. Do you think that being is Los Angeles, people are more likely to spend their hard earned dollars on an opera vs. a performence of modern music because of the Hollywood scene or am I just being regional?
I find it appalling that there are so many brilliant composers and choreographers in this country and particularly Los Angeles and that works of less than the highest quality can make it to the stage. Is there a reason for any of this? It seems that with the current financial crisis should make it so that only the best works are able to make it to the stage for performence. Do you think there is any correlation to Los Angeles and the operatic stage? I may be going to far, but after living in LA for a few years, it seems that the general consumer is okay with less than extremely high art due to the Hollywood scene.
It seems to me that the number of "bad" new operas is in fact actually much lower than it ought to be. Historically, there has never been a period in opera's history where so little new work is produced in favor of endless revivals of a relatively small number of masterpieces. Not that it's unpleasant to see these masterworks, but we got to them via the premiere of countless dogs over the last few centuries that have been long since forgotten.

There are certainly economic issues in how art gets made these days that i suppose could make staging a new opera more or less difficult depending on how you look at it. But in any event, it's the failures that composers and others learn from that go into making a classic of a higher caliber. Granted there may be people that deserve a chance at an operatic stage that haven't gotten it, but just because you've had success elsewhere doesn't mean your first opera will be good. (Just look at Howard Shore)

I think the influence of Los Angeles on the local opera company is a good one. While not everything has been a success, it has brought in fresh faces with different points of view, some with remarkable success. (e.g. Bill Viola, William Freidkin, Maximillian Schell., etc) While I do think local audiences can be easy to please, I also think they have a stronger sense of visual style and are much more open to new endeavors than other places I've lived.
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