The San Francisco Opera (SFO) normally does not offer any information about its plans for the following season until early in January. However, the 94th season will be distinguished by the next major world premiere of a commission work, which will be given its first performance on September 10. That composition will be an operatic adaptation of Dream of the Red Chamber, one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature. Written by Cao Xueqin in the eighteenth century during the Qing dynasties, it is the most recent of the four, the other three having been written in the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries.
This is a massive work that Cao never finished. The exact date of his death is unknown, but it was probably in 1763 or 1764, The 80 chapters he had written were first published in print in 1791, although copies of the manuscript had circulated before then. Gao E., who prepared the first and second printed editions, partnered with Cheng Weiyuan during 1791 and 1792 to write 40 additional chapters to complete the novel.
The composer of this new opera is Bright Sheng, who shared the task of preparing the libretto with David Henry Hwang. This obviously involved a considerable amount of distillation, particularly since the novel itself has 40 significant characters. However, as Sheng discussed at a press conference this afternoon, that distillation fit easily into what may be called the “standard operatic love triangle” of a tenor, a soprano, and a mezzo.
Nevertheless, that triangle departs from tradition because it begins in Heaven and only later descends to Earth. The libretto deals with the Heaven side of the narrative through a prologue, during which we encounter a Divine Stone left behind from the construction of Heaven. Abandoned by the builders, the stone spends three thousand years nurturing a Crimson Pearl Flower with its dew. The two then petition a Monk to allow them to descend to earth to fulfill their love. There is the suggestion that Earth is the dreamworld of Heaven (and probably vice versa); and this is how the novel received its title. (It is sometimes also called The Story of the Stone.)
This opera will be performed by an array of established and rising Asian singers. The Stone, who comes to Earth in the body of Bao Yu, the only heir to a prestigious family of officials in service to the Emperor, will be sung by tenor Yijie Shi. The Flower, in turn, comes to Earth as the sickly Dai Yu, whose mother has just died. She is part of the Jia Clan, which for generations has owed a huge amount of money to the Imperial Court. Her role will be sung by Pureum Jo. Both Jo and Shi will be making their SFO debuts. The mezzo in the triangle, so to speak, is Bao Chi. She is a member of the wealthy Xue Clan and is to be Bao Yu’s bride. This role will be sung by Adler Fellow Nian Wang.
On the production side the opera will be staged by Stan Lai, who has been working closely with designer Tim Yip on a décor that will involve both sets and projections. Both of them will also be making SFO debuts. The conductor for the performance will be George Manahan. The SFO Chorus will be prepared by Ian Robertson, and the SFO Dance Corps will perform choreography by Fang-Yi Sheu, another SFO debut. The commission of Dream of the Red Chamber was initiated and funded by the Chinese Heritage Foundation Friends of Minnesota under Executive Director Pearl Bergad. In addition SFO General Director David Gockley has invited Bay Area civic leaders Gorretti Lo Lui and Doreen Woo Ho to collaborate with SFO to develop community partnerships and fundraising to support the production.
While tickets will not go on sale until the full 2016–17 season is announced, the performances of Dream of the Red Chamber have already been scheduled. There will be six such performances, five at 7:30 p.m. on September 10, 13, 23, 27, and 29, and a 2:30 matinee on September 18. The opera will be in two acts with one intermission. The approximate running time should be three hours. The libretto is in English and there will be English supertitles.