The Bonesetter's Daughter is fiction, but Amy Tan's fourth novel is her most personal. Autobiographical references pepper the story and entire scenes are lifted from conversations Tan had with her mother as Alzheimer's disease dissolved the barriers to her mother's past.
The novel is based on Tan's family history and the impact her grandmother's tragic suicide had on three generations of women. "All of my stories are so much emotionally based on my family," Tan says, "So if the things are not exactly true... emotionally it has to do with our family."
In the opera, as in the novel, the grandmother's vengeful ghost is the guide to the past. Precious Auntie (the grandmother) reveals the unhappy secrets of her life and death to Ruth, her San Francisco-born granddaughter, as Ruth's mother LuLing descends into the alternating haze and clarity of Alzheimer's disease. The experience is transformative for the character Ruth, as it was for Amy in life—learning about their family history, they understand better the forces that shaped their identity and influence their present and future choices.
The novel and the opera share the same first line, "These are the things I know are true..." After that, Tan alters the opera's story by necessity.
"Having worked on a screenplay [for The Joy Luck Club], I knew it was not a good idea to try and shoehorn in the original story from a novel into a film, or opera in this case," Tan says. "I knew from the beginning that we were going to transform this. We went through different iterations, and it became unwieldy until we boiled it down to its emotional core – its soul, in a way."
With composer Stewart Wallace, Tan took several trips to China over three years to research the music and traditional culture of China, and to visit the home where her grandmother died. Then, working in tandem with Wallace, she turned pages of exposition into short poetic phrases. Dozens of minor characters, descriptive scene setting, and conversation became just six scenes in two acts. Wallace's music—the vocal lines and orchestral instrumentation, which includes the use of Chinese instruments—illustrates and enhances Tan‘s spare libretto, deepening the emotional impact and turning it into a music drama.
With the addition of scenic elements, video projections, flying acrobats, and costumes, wigs and make-up, Tan's story became a multidimensional theatrical experience. In other words, an opera.
Amy Tan's family legacy is preserved in her novels, non-fiction essays, and the opera. However, there are countless ways to tell family stories, including fables, poems, plays, songs, and oral records. You can explore and capture your own history by interviewing the most important people in your life, documenting their pivotal moments and passing on their experiences and wisdom.
Learn to capture your family stories with StoryCorps' free Do-It-Yourself interview guide, which contains step-by-step interview instructions, equipment recommendations, and sample questions. StoryCorps is a nonprofit whose mission is to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of our lives. The guide is available online at nationaldayoflistening.org.