by wjw on August 16, 2007

Last night I did a hit-and-run on Santa Fe, to see the American premiere of Tea: a Mirror of Soul, by the Chinese composer Tan Dun, who among other things scored the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

We hadn’t intended to go to Tea, but the description in the program book made it too irresistible. Since Kathy had to work the next day, and since there were only two performances left, I ended up driving to Santa Fe by myself, and home afterwards.

Tan Dun grew up on a remote collective during the Cultural Revolution (his parents were intellectuals), during which time he created music on improvised instruments. He first heard Western music at the age of 20.

His score is an absolute tour-de-force, and showcase Tan’s skill with unconventional instruments. As well as the musicians in the pit, three Japanese percussionists are onstage for much of the action. They start by playing water: they beat water with their hands, they drip water from cupped hands, they pour water from bowls and collanders. (Their transparent bowls of water are eerily lit from below.) Later the percussionists play paper: they crackle and snap and tear pieces of paper in synch with the score. At one point, long paper banners descend to represent a forest— they’re painted with Chinese-style black-and-white brush art representing trees— and these banners are snapped, cracked, stroked, and beaten with drumsticks. At a couple moments the entire pit orchestra is flapping their scores back and forth in time. The percussionists also play ceramic pots, bang rocks together, and play a wooden Japanese-style xylophone.

The staging was lovely and as inventive as the score. Spectacular costumes, nice use of trapdoors and masks, and a shadow play featuring the Monkey King. What more do you want?

The plot is this: we open in Japan, where the Tea Master is drinking with his students. “Growing tea is hard/Harvesting tea is harder/Savoring tea is hardest of all.” The Tea Master is haunted by the ghost of a Woman in Red. His students want to know his backstory. He obliges.

We move years back, to the T’ang Dynasty court in China, where the Emperor is watching his children, Princess Lan and the Prince, perform a play featuring the Monkey King. Enter the Japanese prince, Seikyo, who has apparently had some previous acquaintance with Princess Lan, and who asks for her hand. The Emperor, not wishing to give his daughter to a dull fellow, asks Seikyo to compose a poem on the subject of tea. Seikyo obliges. He’s asked to complete a couplet (the couplet is about fifty words long). Seikyo succeeds in this task as well, and is given the princess. The Chinese Prince, who has incestuous feelings for his sister, denounces the poetry as rubbish.

Enter a messenger from the Prince of Persia, who is willing to give a thousand horses for a copy of the Book of Tea. (A real book, by the way.) Persian horses were extremely prized, and as anyone who’s ever played Koei’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms knows, you can buy the loyalty of a general with one. The Prince has a copy of the book, which Seikyo glances at and denounces as a forgery. He’s seen the real book of tea, and met its author, Lu Yu (a real person), who lives as a hermit. He and the Prince get into a real pissing match, and make a series of deadly vows. If Seikyo can’t find the real book of tea, he’ll let the Prince cut off his head. If Seikyo finds the book, then the Prince will sacrifice his own head. Neither of them are considering Princess Lan’s feelings in any of this, and she is understandably distressed.

So Seikyo and Lan go wandering to find Lu Yu, and turn up at his doorstep to discover that he’s just died. His daughter, touched by their devotion to one another, gives Lan the book— but at that moment the Prince turns up and steals it. Seikyo and the Prince get into a swordfight— once again nobody’s consulting the feelings of the Princess— and while she’d trying to put a stop to the fighting, the Prince runs her through. When the Emperor turns up, the Prince offers to let Seikyo cut off his head; Seikyo refuses. We return to the Tea Master, who is Prince Seikyo, and he repeats much of his opening aria.

Which brings me to the libretto, which was in English (presumably it’s difficult to find classically-trained vocalists who have mastered Chinese). The translation is literal and clanky, and forces the vocalists chop words up into component parts, or drag vowels out over several phrases. It’s as if the translator didn’t have access to a score. Here’s an example:

“Breathe out white,/inhale black,/fire stays red,/tea still green,/mind still flames,/only the seat of the sage is a blank.”

Never mind trying to figure out what it means— apparently it has to do with a guru’s bum— but how the hell do you sing it?

And the line “Everything good is in Tang” is evidence that the translator has forgotten about the breakfast beverage of the Mercury astronauts. And of course I immediately thought about the Turkey City Lexicon entry on the Jar of Tang, which is not what the composer had in mind.

I’d like another translation, please, by someone with more experience in how English is supposed to be sung.

But in the meantine: Wow. What a show.

Only one performance left, next Thursday. Check it out.

Anonymous August 24, 2007 at 12:58 am

The T’ang Dynasty, eh?

Seems to me that if there were a mystery, all the Emperor had to do would be to send for Judge Dee.

Joseph T Major

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