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Zheng Cao (Ruth Young Kamen) [Photo by Terrence McCarthy]
06 Oct 2008

On The Bonesetter’s Daughter

Decades ago a New Yorker cartoon showed a very little girl standing on tip-toe to return a book to a matronly librarian.

Stewart Wallace: The Bonesetter’s Daughter

Ruth Young Kamen (Zheng Cao), Luling Liu Young (Ning Liang), Precious Auntie (Qian Yi), Chang the Coffin Maker (Hao Jiang Tian), Taoist Priest (Wu Tong), Art Kamen (James Maddalena), Arlene Kamen (Catherine Cook), Marty Kamen (Valery Portnov), Dory Kamen (Madelaine Matej), Fia Kamen (Rose Frazier), Chang's First Wife (Mary Finch), Chang's Second Wife (Natasha Ramirez Leland), Chang's Third Wife (Erin Neff), Acrobats (Dalian Acrobatic Troupe), Suona (Wu Tong / Zuo Jicheng). San Francisco Opera. Conductor: Steven Sloane. Director: Chen Shi-Zheng. Set Designer: Walt Spangler.

Above: Zheng Cao as Ruth Young Kamen

All photos by Terrence McCarthy courtesy of San Francisco Opera


“The trouble with this book,” said the little girl, “is that it told me more about penguins than I really wanted to know.” The cartoon comes to mind as I assemble thoughts on The Bonesetter’s Daughter, the opera by Stewart Wallace and Amy Tan that premiered at the San Francisco Opera in September.

I jest, of course, for I am grateful for the immense amount of information at my disposal about the new work that I saw at its third performance in the War Memorial Opera House on September 25. My “homework” began with Tan’s bestselling 2004 novel, from which the author extracted the libretto for Bonesetter’s Daughter. It’s a large book — and a good one, and I wish that everyone would read it before seeing the opera. This is not to say that the opera is a series of sins of omission, for Tan has ably done what must always be done in reducing a big book to a libretto. She has worked with Wallace to create a work that, while new, is faithful to the novel.

She has, above all, preserved the truth of the book, the truth that unites three generations of Chinese women so seamlessly that they function at times as a single individual.

These are the things
These are the things I know
These are the things I know are true.

With those lines daughter Ruth, ageing mother LuLing and Precious Auntie, a ghost from an earlier China, open the score. They return in the course of the work.

Ruth_LuLing.pngZheng Cao (Ruth Young Kamen) & Ning Liang (LuLing Liu Young)

Reducing a novel to a libretto is an act of creative transformation, and the challenge differs with each work. I think, for example, of Ricky Ian Gordon’s Grapes of Wrath, premiered two seasons ago by Minnesota Opera. The Steinbeck classic, I thought, would defy such transformation. Wendell Korie, however, caught the epic sweep of the novel in his libretto. Korie, Wallace’s librettist for Harvey Milk, offered extensive advice to the creative team of Bonesetter’s Daughter.

Rather than generalizing about the process of transformation, a comparison of the task at hand says more about both operas. Korie had an easier job, for Grapes has essentially a group hero — the Joads — and Steinbeck follows them for a relatively brief time on their journey from Dust-Bowl Oklahoma to the — they hoped — greener pastures of California. The narrative line is simpler — and straighter.

ActI_Scene.pngJames Maddalena (Art Kamen), Rose Frazier (Fia Kamen), Zheng Cao (Ruth Young Kamen), Ning Liang (LuLing Liu Young), Madelaine Matej (Dory Kamen), Valery Portnov (Marty Kamen), Catherine Cook (Arlene Kamen), Qian Yi (Precious Auntie)

Tan’s story extends over the better part of a century and moves from America to China, whence this family came in the years after World War Two. Much disappears from Tan’s novel on the way to the opera stage. Only those who know something of the horrors of Mao’s Cultural Revolution will respond to mention of that age of repression in the libretto. And what American knows enough about calligraphy to appreciate what was involved in making ink for this ancient craft? This was the business of Precious Auntie’s family in China.

But back to reading. I am grateful that Ken Smith has documented the genesis of the new opera in Fate! Luck! Chance! Amy Tan, Stewart Wallace, and the Making of ‘The Bonesetter’s Daughter’ Opera (San Francisco, 2008. $24.95). Smith, long a respected music critic, has, with wife Joanna Lee, become the major mediator between American and Chinese music in this age of cultural cross-pollination. His book — rich in photos — records a creative process largely unique to opera, for Bonesetter’s Daughter is the product of a collective headed by Tan and Wallace that included director/choreographer Chen Shi-Zheng and the several musicians whom the two came to know on their several trips to China. Indeed, as I read about the many influences upon the work during the three years of its genesis I began to fear a collage of cultural fragments lacking specific identity. Happily, Bonesetter’s Daughter is anything but, and that is due largely to Wallace’s ability to assimilate what he experienced and express it in a voice that is totally his own.

Chang_Coffinmaker.pngHao Jiang Tian (Chang the Coffinmaker)

A Chinese-American opera; an American-Chinese opera? Just what is the work? It is decidedly American, and in Smith’s book Wallace defines his idiom in recalling his effort “to write music in my own language that felt Chinese without sounding ersatz Chinese.” He explains further: “You can hear this in the timbre and texture, but also in terms of the space between the notes that lets the music resonate with a sense of ritual.” That says it all and accounts for the newness — for the freshness and transparency of the score.

At 2 hours and 40 minutes, Bonesetter’s Daughter is nonetheless an engagingly intimate work exuberant in emotion. I felt at the end that it is a good work, not great perhaps, but good in its human authenticity.

Fate! Luck! Chance!, a documentary on the making of the opera, will be shown on public television in early 2009. Smith’s book includes the complete libretto of Bonesetter’s Daughter.

Wes Blomster

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