Last night I saw the second performance of The Bonesetter’s Daughter, the world premiere at the San Francisco Opera, with mostly pleasant music by Stewart Wallace and a naïve and clumsy libretto by Amy Tan, based on her novel. It’s a bit of an expensive disaster, and as it slowly sank, I half wondered if the evening would end with a transcription for suona of Nearer, My God, to Thee.
Not that I didn’t like the music; the somber chorus of refugees in Hong Kong that opens Act 2, and the dreamy undulations of the letter-writing scene that follows, are particularly beautiful. But Stewart’s strength seems to be in this sort of meditative music, and meditation isn’t really that effective theatrically; the big confrontations fall flat musically (as well as dramatically) and it all starts to seem too similar and too even (the big percussion moments seem to be at the same volume as every other moment; I have the impression of a very mezzoforte evening). And every singer is amplified, with ugly and distracting microphones attached near their mouths. The disembodied, somewhat flattened sound that results might have been effective if restricted to Precious Auntie, who is a ghost, but as it is, it just looks as if Wallace doesn’t know how to write for voice and orchestra.
Years ago I read an interview with James Levine in which he was asked about the Met’s failure to commission more new operas during his tenure. His somewhat defensive reply was that, while the Met may not have hosted many world premieres, he had expanded their repertory to include twentieth-century masterpieces by Shostakovich, Berg, Schoenberg, and Janacek, and regular exposure to these works was ultimately more effective in broadening musical taste than having a splashy one-off that then disappears. The Bonesetter’s Daughter was obviously extremely expensive to produce (trips to China! returns from China, laden with percussionists! acrobats! son et lumiere!), and I’ve wondered if the extremely dull and conventional programming at the opera this season was in the hopes of reliable cash cows to offset the Bonesetter money pit. And what is the future for this work? The things that make the performance somewhat interesting (the Chinese instruments, the elaborate production with aerialists and jugglers) are what make it too specialized and expensive for smaller houses.
Because this opera is not going to be effective without all the distractions provided by the staging. At the very basic level of storytelling, it simply doesn’t make sense, and some scenes drag on while others are confusingly truncated. I haven’t read the novel (or any of Tan’s novels) and I only read the synopsis after the show. I did that deliberately, so that I was bringing in as little outside plot knowledge as possible. And what I saw on stage was apparently not what I was supposed to be seeing.
After a brief prelude featuring lots of fun but irrelevant aerialists and a trio for Precious Auntie (the exquisite Qian Yi, a specialist in the kunju tradition of Chinese opera), her daughter LuLing as an old woman (the powerful Ning Liang), and LuLing’s daughter Ruth Young Kamen (Zheng Cao, who valiantly gives her considerable best, and also plays the young LuLing in the flashbacks), there’s a drawn-out scene in a Chinese restaurant, meant to establish that Ruth’s mother is difficult and her mind is going. But I can’t say I blame the poor woman, considering what she has to put up with: the Kamens, her daughter’s in-laws (Valery Portnov and Catherine Cook) rudely decline the food and with even greater rudeness criticize the mink coat Ruth gives her mother (at least we’re told it’s mink – the actual coat on stage is a particularly garish shade of pink, which is not the color of actual mink, and it appears to be made up of lots of woven material and satin rags rather than fur).
Ruth gets to sing about how buying the coat means she appreciates what her mother did for her (there’s another lengthy aria of mother love during the flashback to China, and like this one it’s about how much the mother has suffered, so the child should be grateful – do the kids still call this guilt-tripping?). Throughout the dinner, her two adolescent stepdaughters behave with astonishing rudeness, ridiculing the special foods, speaking disrespectfully to Ruth and her mother, using their cellphones at the table, and so forth. Their father seems to think there is nothing to do in the face of this behavior but look sympathetically and helplessly at his wife while she’s insulted. I realize it’s ridiculous to give advice to people, particularly when those people are imaginary, but I have to say it: Dude, grow a pair. I almost walked on stage to slap those girls myself. This jellyfish is played by James Maddalena, in a role that adds no luster to his distinguished career.
(He is one of the few performers, though, who can consistently be understood without reference to the surtitles, a difficulty which holds for the native speakers of English and not just those whose native language is Chinese. I assume the problem has to do with the vocal lines and Wallace’s problems with voice and orchestra. They should have just had the China sections sung in Chinese, and made things a little easier for those poor women, since you have to read most of the words anyway – though I should also say that occasionally the surtitles didn't match the words I could make out.)
Then the ghost of Precious Auntie changes Ruth into the younger version of her mother and takes her from the Chinese restaurant back to 1930s China. Maybe I should issue a spoiler alert here, but does it count as a spoiler if you watched the opera attentively and it still doesn’t quite make sense? Precious Auntie, daughter of the village’s late bonesetter, seems to be practically a slave to Wang Tai-Tai the Inkmaker (Catherine Cook again). She seems to be despised more than the other young women laboring there, I don’t know why. Her daughter LuLing Liu works with her. The villain of the piece, Chang the Coffinmaker (Hao Jiang Tian), who has raped Precious Auntie and killed her father, lusts after LuLing and decides to marry her.
I’m figuring there’s a good chance that she’s his daughter, so it’s not making a lot of sense to me that no one is raising a fuss besides Precious Auntie, and it’s not making sense why Precious Auntie, who seems to control her daughter in other ways, can’t forbid this marriage. There does turn out to be a reason: all these relationships are supposed to be shrouded in mystery at this point. As I discovered only by reading the synopsis later, Precious Auntie had always claimed that she found the infant LuLing in an icy gutter and saved her (which would certainly explain why a daughter is calling her mother Precious Auntie), and has never told her who her parents were.
Chang proves his perfidy by wearing white to the wedding even though he is not the bride (seriously, isn’t white the color of mourning in most Asian countries? Why is he wearing it to a wedding?). Precious Auntie bursts in and delivers a curse on Chang. She is high overhead (director Chen Shi-Zheng uses this technique several times, literally distancing one antagonist from those she should be confronting, which lowers the dramatic temperature). Videotaped flames fill the background, though it’s not made entirely clear on stage that she has set herself and the building on fire. Well, someone noticed how effective the end of Gotterdammerung is, but it’s only effective if you know what’s going on. There’s no actual fire here, and no particular reason to assume that these projections are suddenly real, unlike the sharks and stars and whatnot we’ve seen earlier.
After the intermission we see LuLing in Hong Kong, writing letters for other refugee women, a fairly extraneous scene that exists only for the thematic point that all these women speak for or as others, something not as uncommon, or even as psychologically warping, as the libretto seems to think. It’s unclear how someone previously seen as a slave girl in an ink factory acquired calligraphic skills beyond that of the other refugee women, some of whom were presumably not teenage slaves. LuLing is hoping to find a husband to take her to America, but when Chang shows up, even though she was eager to marry him earlier to escape the misery of her situation, she now doesn’t want to, and he either rapes or tries to rape her.
The ghost of Precious Auntie then appears with convenient rage and reveals the family relationships, which I thought everyone already knew. She forces Chang to confess also that he killed her father the bonesetter to gain the dragon bone that would make him immortal, which is something else I thought everyone already knew. Precious Auntie then uses the dragon bone to castrate Chang, though again, it’s a little vague if killing him is a separate act or a result of removing what he whimsically calls “little brother.” The synopsis, which incidentally was written by Tan, isn’t much help here, delicately declining to spell out exactly what happens, which I would have thought might be the actual purpose of a synopsis: “she throws him to the ground, tortures him with the dragon bone, and extracts his confession” – well, at least she’s admitting it’s torture. The validity of confessions under torture seems to be official US policy now, so I guess there’s nothing troubling there; and indeed according to the synopsis this is a moment “in which three generations broken by pain have become whole again, unified and inseparable in their understanding.”
Well, that’s nice for everyone. That really does seem to be the naïve psychology operating here: if Something Really Bad happens to someone, it can make them difficult, until they talk about it, at which point they are healed. (What LuLing and Ruth really need is not this group hug so much as a family with better manners). I suspect that maybe some bad things happened a bit further back in the family tree as well, since life tends to be made up of lots of bad things, but the possibility isn’t raised. And definitely no one seems to have considered asking Chang the Coffinmaker if maybe his own grandfather was also the victim of Something Really Bad.
Again, my objection here is not that the men (in effect, there are only two, Chang and Ruth’s husband; the occasional priest or waiter or father-in-law is too negligible to count, and the titular bonesetter himself simply doesn’t exist, except as a name) are either castrated or might as well have been. My objection is not that the men are either weak or villainous (in case you’re missing the point about Chang the Coffinmaker, let me repeat it: he makes coffins. You know, where they put people without life). My objection is not that the opera is all about the women. My objection is that there’s a double standard: if victimization by the powerful, or by historical forces, can explain and justify the women, why isn’t there any effort to examine the circumstances that shaped the men? Motiveless malignancy, like dream sequences, can be very effective, but only when used carefully. There seems to be no driving force behind the cartoonlike relentlessness of Chang’s villainy – he bribes! he kills! he steals! he rapes! He pees publicly! – except that he has a dick. My dick and I have certain problems with this view.
But then the farther you go from the character of Ruth, the less sympathy and understanding you get. I personally am far too sophisticated to assume that Ruth equals Amy Tan, or even equals a social or literary construct we call “Amy Tan,” but apparently neither the opera company nor Tan herself suffer the burden of any such sophistication. She coyly dances in interviews around the question of how much of this “is really her.” The opera company has assured us, almost as often as they’ve declared this opera “eagerly awaited,” that it is deeply personal, which I find deeply embarrassing. But then I’m mostly interested in art, not gossip.
Tan and Stewart have repeatedly declared that this is an American, and not a Chinese, opera, and despite the copious application of glittering chinoiserie and exotic bric-a-brac, they are absolutely correct: we’re dealing with a heroine who is so self-absorbed, so unaware of the larger world around her, that even in middle age she requires supernatural intervention before she figures out that maybe her mother grew up having a few problems of her own, and maybe even an existence separate from her daughter’s.
We’re dealing with a heroine for whom foreign cultures are simply magical lands like Oz. (About that dragon bone – I’m going to go out on a limb here, and suggest that maybe it’s not really the bone of a dragon, and even that eating it in powdered form would not actually make you immortal. This possibility is never really raised during the opera. And the murder of Chang is not staged so that you might think it was actually done by LuLing, aided by the thought of her mother – the murder is actually committed by the ghost. Apparently the laws of ordinary science do not apply to colorful far-off lands.)
We’re dealing with a heroine convinced that only personal relationships and emotional trauma matter (her mother’s erratic behavior is due to The Awful Things Men Did to Her, rather than to, say, an aberrant chemical in her brain).
We’re dealing with a heroine whose sense of history can only extend back to her grandmother, and who thinks simplistically that what happens to people is more important than how they react to what happens. Yep, it’s all sounding pretty much like a fairly privileged American in the therapeutic age.
One of the problems with deeply personal work is that there often isn’t enough emotional distance from the author’s stand-in for the appropriate insight, irony, balance, and judgment (this, incidentally, is why all the Lisa-centered episodes of the Simpsons are almost invariably weak – she’s just too similar to the writers). In the restaurant scene at the beginning, you have to wonder why Ruth, who presumably has known her in-laws for some time, would order shellfish, which they can’t eat (it’s a little unclear if this is due to personal preference, digestive problems, or Jewish dietary law), or why she would order “food that looks like what it was” (that is, has a head or tail), after her husband had warned her his daughters wouldn’t like it (not that that justifies their rude reactions). You have to wonder why she hasn’t explained the cultural significance of the foods they’re about to eat (they symbolize a happy family, and I know she didn’t explain this because I had to read the synopsis to find out).
I think we’re meant to see Ruth as well-meaning and caught between conflicting cultures. I couldn’t help feeling that she’s someone who manipulates her way into having others reject what she’s offering so that she can feel sorry for herself, because after all she means so well. But that’s obviously not the intention, because you can’t make someone like that the sympathetic heroine of an opera.
In the final scene, her dying mother begs Ruth to forgive her, which she tearfully does, but I really wasn’t clear what exactly there was to forgive. Having a difficult life? Trying her best to raise her? Giving her constant advice, most of which – don’t talk back; be polite; don’t run around in the street, it’s dangerous – seems to be good old-fashioned common sense? So I have to ask: Is this really a scene of radiant reconciliation and forgiveness? Or is it actually a vindictive fantasy about getting the upper hand over those who have some power over you? It’s not only the men who are humiliated for not being Ruth/Amy. I don’t get the glow I get from the forgiveness scene at the end of Nozze di Figaro. There’s an ugly will to power, an unwillingness to accept the reality of other people the farther away they get from oneself, under Ruth’s sense of befuddled victimhood. This opera is a labor of self-love gone wrong.