« Spike Lee. Tan Dun. Grapes of Wrath. Denzel Washington. Déjà Vu. Janice & Camus. | Main | The Grapes of Wrath. Ricky Ian Gordon. Michael Korie. Elizabeth Futral. »

Tan Dun. The First Emperor. Plácido Domingo. Grapes of Wrath. Ricky Ian Gordon.


On December 8, 2006, the Dresser attended a big-guns press conference and full dress rehearsal of The First Emperor, a new opera by composer Tan Dun and librettist Ha Jin. The opera about the tyrant who built the Great Wall of China with slave labor premieres December 21 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.


Tan Dun, Chinese film director Zhang Yimou, and new Met General Director Peter Gelb participated in the press con and was later joined by tenor Plácido Domingo. Domingo came dressed in full costume and makeup. He quipped it was his “first news conference as Emperor.”


Tan Dun, who is best known for composing the music to the popular Ang Lee film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and who was forced to work in rice fields during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, said it was his dream to create an opera for Plácido Domingo. A modest man, Tan Dun never imagined that he would have such an opportunity. Met Artistic Assistant Manager Sarah Billinghurst, who provided some background information at this news conference, said that Tan Dun and Tobias Picker (his opera An American Tragedy premiered at the Met last December) were selected out of a pool of 100 composers. James Levine led the search, but Tan Dun was considered a risky choice and most likely not Levine’s favored choice. Although Levine was originally tapped to conduct The First Emperor, it will be Tan Dun holding the baton. Billinghurst added that Tan Dun was an exemplary composer never missing any deadlines.


When the Met offered the commission to Tan Dun, he was working with Zhang Yimou on the film Hero. Hero is about Qin Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of China. Qin Shi Huangdi is the ruler that unified China and standardized the Chinese language, set measurements for width and length, and built a series of roads and canals to converge on the capital city of Xianyang. Fearful of death and longing for immortality, Qin Shi Huangdi of the Qin Dynasty is known for his army of terracotta soldiers. The Dresser offers this poem from her collection Looking For Divine Transportation:

The War Against Death

The emperor of the Qin

dynasty pursued life ever


dispersed emissaries

to commandeer the elixir

of immortality.

sayers decreed, “to be a true

man, one who would never

die, one who could fly

through clouds and air,

the emperor must guard his

So he became a

ghost floating through secret

passages in his palace, ordering

the death of any subject who slipped

and said, “I saw him in the garden. I

saw him in his chambers.”
Just in case,

he assembled all the potters of his empire

to form and fire a terra-cotta army,

six feet tall, horses in full battle

dress, one thousand foot

soldiers—every one

a unique face,
bowmen with working weapons.

If he had to go into the unknown to wage

this battle, he would not depart alone.

by Karren L. Alenier


Tan Dun also considered two other subjects for an opera, one about the Jewish community in Shanghai or another about Sigmund Freud. However, Tan Dun said he knew more about the first emperor. Tan Dun also emphasized that he has no boundaries between East and West. Getting Ha Jin, who was suggested to Tan Dun by Met staff, to agree to write the libretto was not easy. Ha Jin felt that they would be honoring a despot. Tan Dun, eager to work with Ha Jin, flew to Boston where the librettist lives to convince him that this opera was about music and not about the might of Qin Shi Huangdi. Thus the story of this opera is about the emperor trying to persuade his childhood friend whose mother nursed the emperor-to-be to write a national anthem for presentation at the emperor’s coronation. In fact, there is something of the story of Tan Dun in this libretto. The composer said, “If I was a slave, now I am a free man.” Domingo also said that the character he is creating is a better man than the historic figure.

Between Gelb and Tan Dun there is a mutual admiration society. Tan Dun said Gelb was “a super” and then he chuckled correcting his mistake. “I mean a superman, not a maintenance man.” Gelb, who met the composer in Asia some years, was careful not to take credit for the premiere of The First Emperor.

Of the new opera, Zhang Yimou said through his translator,


“Because I don’t speak the language, directing this work is like watching poetry.” The other thread of his conversation focused on the music and, for this director, the music is the essential element. Directing his second opera, Zhang Yimou said, “The First Emperor is a joy to work on and a joy to work with Plácido Domingo who is the best possible actor.” Domingo answered that he enjoyed this creative process of creating the role of the first emperor but as of December 8th that it was still very fluid and not set.


The Dresser asked Tan Dun to talk about his music. With a bit of mischief in his smile, the composer said, “rocking the stones was very sexy.” In the opening scene of the opera, which the press was invited to see after the press con, a chorus of soldiers accent the music by tapping stones together. Tan Dun also talked about his interest in Mongolian fiddling and how vibrato and shading were achieved without a bow. The composer said he was interested in producing both high and low art. Besides the sound of stones being struck together, thighs are slapped, and ceramic vessels are hit as if they were gongs. Some Chinese instruments and musicians also are featured on stage as the opera opens.

At the press conference of maybe 200 journalists, photographers, videographers, and Met staff personnel, the Dresser met many Chinese journalists who were eager to know if the Dresser had experienced any Chinese opera before. Except for a short performance at a Smithsonian theater in Washington, DC, the only authentic Asian opera the Dresser has ever attended was Kabuki theater in Tokyo. After the press con convened, Met staff shepherded the press into the balcony to watch for 90 minutes the dress rehearsal with full orchestra. The Dresser’s seat mate, Lillian Lin, Bureau Chief of the New York Bureau of The Central New Agency, translated the three Chinese characters on the first scrim—beginning emperor Chin (also Qin). Ms. Lin also told the Dresser the name of the Chinese stringed instrument: the Ku Ching (a harp like instrument) possibly the same thing as the zheng that is mentioned in the libretto of The First Emperor.


A thumbnail of impressions about the opera: the music is organic, lyric, romantic. The staging is majestic and minimal built around a wide expanse of stairs, maybe leading to the Great Wall? The costumes are colorful and inventive. The text, a mix of Chinese and English is spare. The movement by the actor/singers blends Peking Opera, folk, and shamanistic ritual. The star performer undoubtedly is Plácido Domingo.


One interesting aside, on December 8th, the Dresser heard Elizabeth Futral, one of the two sopranos playing the emperor’s daughter, at the Met and at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in a preview showcase performance of The Grapes of Wrath by composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Michael Korie. More on Grapes in the next blog entry.

If the reader does not already have a ticket to The First Emperor, the best bet is to see this in a participating movie house on January 13th. This opera is accessible and imagistically appealing. The Dresser who did not love An American Tragedy is wildly excited about The First Emperor.


Comments (3)

The inserted poem is perfect for the overall piece. Beautiful review. Sensual and exciting as the opera must be. It always comes to me how art is the only hope for world understanding.

Thank you for the article on the new opera. I love Tan Dun's music and adore Chinese opera and go whenever I can. They play in Chinatown sometimes. They come from Taiwan or Shanghai.

Mel Belin:

The Dresser did a very good job. Hmmm. Fascinating Opera subject, though I'd find interesting also the Jews Of Shanghai opera (there was once a thriving Jewish community in China, and then, something happened, not sure exactly what, that ended it). Also a Sigmund Freud opera would be interesting. Perhaps, Tan Dun can come back to these ideas in the future. Isn't that shooting star in the Opera firmament, Placido Domingo, the nice guy who once gave the Dresser an interview. I would be delighted if the Dresser goes to New York and passes along a review.

Qin Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of China, who created the Terra Cotta army is a good subject for Opera or poem (and the Dresser's poem was rich, evocative . . .). I assume the Emperor's obsession with surviving death, somehow gets worked into the Opera. I hope so.

Post a comment

Use this form to place a comment to a post in the blog. You must include a valid email address for spam protection. Please see our Privacy Policy for details on how your private information is used and protected. Your comment will be posted as soon as it is reviewed by the blog editor.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on December 21, 2006 12:16 AM.

The previous post in this blog was Spike Lee. Tan Dun. Grapes of Wrath. Denzel Washington. Déjà Vu. Janice & Camus..

The next post in this blog is The Grapes of Wrath. Ricky Ian Gordon. Michael Korie. Elizabeth Futral..

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.