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Trimmed from 120 Chapters, 'Dream of the Red Chamber' To Debut as Opera

by Frances Kai-Hwa Wang /
"The Dream of the Red Chamber" opera creative team members at a University of Michigan workshop performance. From left: director Stan Lai, composer and librettist Bright Sheng, librettist David Henry Hwang, and conductor George Manahan.Kathleen Kelly / University of Michigan

How do you distill one of the most expansive, celebrated works of Chinese literature into an opera? You trim and you workshop.

“Dream of the Red Chamber,” a new opera written by Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang and MacArthur Fellow and composer Bright Sheng, saw its first American workshop performance earlier this month at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre, & Dance in Ann Arbor, Michigan, ahead of its scheduled September debut.

Commissioned by the Chinese Heritage Foundation in 2011, the opera takes on the 18th century Chinese novel “Hong Lou Meng,” translated as "Dream of the Red Chamber," by Cao Xueqin. The novel is considered one of the great works of Chinese literature, with 120 chapters, 50 major characters, and 400 minor characters detailing the intricacies of Chinese life and society.

“I worry about this story in particular because it is so beloved by the Chinese community,” Sheng said at a panel discussion at the University of Michigan. “People come with lots of preconceptions and already know the whole storyline.”

Hwang, who has previously collaborated with Sheng on the chamber opera “The Silver River,” initially said no to the project because the story was too expansive, but together with Sheng, the two have pared down the story.

“We have boiled it down to an essential love triangle,” Hwang said at the panel. The opera will focus on the spoiled youth Bao Yu, his brilliant but sickly soulmate Dai Yu, and his beautiful and rich betrothed Bao Chai, who are caught up in the conflicts of love and friendship, old money and new money, political power and obligation, desire and destiny, and illusion and reality.

With an international Asian and Asian-American creative team — including Taiwanese-American stage director Stan Lai and Academy Award-winning Hong Kong set and costume designer Tim Yip, best known for his work on “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” — the work strives to be true to the spirit of the Chinese original while also being accessible to modern audiences.

Sheng said that although they are trying to capture the spirit of the original, they cannot help but understand the story with a contemporary mentality.

“I’m just writing in English, and that changes the nature of the language,” Hwang told NBC News.

One of the many challenges of adapting the novel, Hwang said, was the style of speech the characters employed. “No one says anything directly,” he said.

At the same time, the language had to be extremely concise for opera. “It takes longer to sing ‘I love you’ than to say ‘I love you,’” Sheng said.

Kip Cranna of the San Francisco Opera told NBC News that all seven principals have already been cast and are Asian or Asian-American singers. "Dream of the Red Chamber" is scheduled to premiere on Sept. 10, 2016, at the San Francisco Opera.

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