Tan Dun's The First Emperor

The Metropolitan Opera rarely does world premieres. Plácido Domingo has never done a world premiere at the Met, even after more than forty seasons. So, when Domingo is scheduled to sing the Metropolitan world premiere of Oscar and Grammy winning Chinese-American composer Tan Dun, all the world turns out. The First Emperor, a decade old project commissioned jointly by the Met and the LA Opera, tells the story of Qin Shi Huang, the man who united the disparate kingdoms around him into China.

Brutal and murderous, Ha Jin novelist and co-librettist on this opera has called Qin a tyrant whose crimes outweighed his contribution. The First Emperor takes place after Qin has solidified his control over the conquered provinces. He wishes a musical anthem to unite his people. It is an old friend turned rival, Jianli whose village was destroyed and his mother killed by Qin’s army, to whom Qin turns for the anthem. Jianli refuses, but is convinced by Qin’s daughter, Princess Yueyang who he seduces.

This is grand opera with death and destruction and an imperfect hero whose decisions affect all around him. Tan Dun sought to integrate his Eastern and Western music training into a cohesive whole, which he achieves with aplomb. His orchestral music, which uses ceramic percussion from Qin’s era and a giant brass bell at least fifteen feet high, is mesmerizing. I could listen to his music all day.

The singing, on the other hand, was, well, different. First, it was sung in English, which for me is difficult to hear with then questioning the choice of words and phrasing. Secondly, almost all of the singing is used to advance the story; it’s all recitative and very little aria. The second act opens with a gorgeous duet between Jianli and Princess Yueyang, a moment when the story steps out of it relentless prgression. They express their love for one another while describing the horizon with its fields and shepherd, cattle and goats. Though it works on an intellectual level, this is how forbidden lovers might express themselves, but in English it just sounds bizarre. When sung in another language, whether German or French or Italian, the vocalization is like another instrument; it can be appreciated like any other instrument, for the beauty and quality of its sound.

Let there be no mistake, the singers were magnificent. Domingo still sings like a young superstar, the notes in his upper register are as clear as ever. Paul Groves as Jianli, Elizabeth Futral as Princess Yueyang, and Michelle DeYoung as the Shaman each held their own singing with and against the Master. Whatever deficiency (which may be in me and not the composition) is certainly not in the singers.

The final act is both soaring and plodding, at times torturous and even transcendent. As Qin ascends the stairs to his throne (the stairs that dominate the stage throughout the production), he is confronted by ghosts and more. He waits to hear his new anthem, accepting the sorrows that confront him if only to hear the unity of his people. When he finally hears the anthem, sorrow of sorrows, he is utterly defeated by a song.

The problem is, the climactic scene takes almost an hour. There is something to be said for economy. Tan Dun had none. He used every note and every instrument in his arsenal. A genius yes, but an unfettered one. A little bit of restraint would have gone a long way.

Later in the new year, the Met will broadcast The First Emperor in HD to movie theatres throughout the country. I will be there to hear and see this work again. I suggest you be there as well. The bell of heaven alone is worth it, as is Domingo’s velvet voice, and Emi Wada’s costumes, and….