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See It: Opera’s Cup of Tea

July 25, 2007, 12:00 am
An organic opera makes a muted splash at its American premiere.

So the curtain goes up and an Oklahoman cowhand named Curly strolls on stage, commenting on oh, what a beautiful morning this happens to be. Pay attention, please, to Curly's last verse: "All the sounds of the earth are like music…" ***image1***

Tan Dun takes this observation really, really seriously in his 2002 piece, Tea: A Mirror of Soul, now playing in its eye-popping American premiere at the Santa Fe Opera. The composer translates the sounds of water, of wind, of stone into a sonic language that he calls organic music. Sure, there are humans in the mix-enacting a tragic love story set in ancient China and Japan. But the opera gives near-equal time to the music that's inherent in the natural world, if we will only hear it. It's Tan Dun's shamanistic song of the earth.

Three on-stage percussionists provide the sounds of water: dribbling, slapping, splashing the stuff in transparent, illuminated hemispheres. They make us hear the sounds of wind as it ripples, rends or hits upon various papery configurations. They evoke the sounds of stone with their beating of tuned ceramic pots and by the choral clicking of rock against rock.

In a quasi-philosophical overlay of the opera's action, these elements offer a key to understanding each of the three acts, according to the composer. In Act 1, the Japanese prince, Seikyo, journeys to China to claim the hand of Princess Lan, much against the wishes of her jealous, challenging brother, The Prince. This is the watery act signifying rebirth. In the erotic second act, Seikyo and Lan journey to the south on their challenge-quest to find the true Book of Tea. Here the libretto specifies that "paper music wafts in, sending a message of wind…"

In the final act, Seikyo acquires the true Book of Tea from the daughter of tea sage Lu Yu, its author, and is dared to combat by the angry Prince. Lan is killed trying to intervene and Seikyo despairs. Now the composer requires "music of ceramic and stones, ending a message of fate…" In a ritualistic prologue and epilogue reminiscent of Kurosawa's Kumonosu-jô, Seikyo, 10 years older and now a monk and Zen master, savors the emptiness of the tea bowl and, seemingly, the vanity of human wishes.

As you might guess, this is a highly referential piece of work, filled with allusions to a classic Chinese tale, The Journey to the West, to Lu Yu's Book of Tea, to shadow play and Buddhist sutra. It contrasts the Japanese tea ceremony (sober and restrained) with the Chinese ceremony (colorful and boisterous). It provides an extended meditation on the image of tea as an object of pure, disengaged beauty in an otherwise sordid world of egotistical striving.

Typically, the SFO gives this premiere the deluxe treatment. Haijing Fu sings Seikyo, the role he created at Suntory Hall five years ago. Tan's vocal writing makes horrendous requirements of his hero, demanding a stratospheric register that goes way beyond the normal reach of the baritone voice. Dramatically and vocally, Fu is superb. Lan, a tricky role requiring plenty of power in its demanding upper range plus plenty of control in its frequent melismatic passages, is taken skillfully in stride by Kelly Kaduce. Roger Honeywell makes a convincing obsessive Prince and Christian van Horn is the Emperor of China. In three important roles, Nancy Maultsby sings with rich conviction, acts impressively.

The energetic Lawrence Renes conducts a many-hued orchestra that contributes yelps and page flaps to the action. Director Amon Miyamoto's stage movement provides busy, sometimes puzzling animation. The generally effective set by Rumi Matsui and opulent costumes by Masatomo Ota are easy on the eyes.

But to what end? Many would argue that, however hyped, Tan's recently premiered opera at the Met, The First Emperor, lacked clothes. Tea, in the SFO's conscientious production, fills the eye, titillates the ear, activates the senses. Still, its demanding vocal writing lacks much distinction, sounding in its lyrical moments like warmed up Bernstein with a splash of soy. Tan's would-be erotic second act never quite rises to the occasion. And, truth to tell, all that water splashing, paper flapping, stone beating gets a bit old after awhile. You'll probably have a good time while you're in the theater, but don't be surprised if you're hankering for a burrito half an hour after the show.


9 pm

Wednesday, July 25

Various times and dates
Through Aug. 23


Santa Fe Opera
Hwy. 84/285,
seven miles north of
Santa Fe


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