Amy Tan, San Francisco Opera Take Novel From Page to Stage

September 25, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
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Spencer Michels reports on how best-selling author Amy Tan's darkest family secrets from China became the focal points for a world-premiere opera in San Francisco.

NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michaels has this report, produced in conjunction with San Francisco’s KQED art program, “Spark.”

AMY TAN, Author: The story starts off quite simply. “These are the things I know are true. My name is LuLing Liu Young.”

SPENCER MICHELS, NewsHour Correspondent: Like many of Amy Tan’s best-selling novels, “The Bonesetter’s Daughter” is a story about mothers and daughters. But this, Tan’s most personal story, is infused with autobiographical tellings of her family’s darkest secrets from China.

Now those secrets are central to the San Francisco Opera’s world premier production based on the novel. The opera, like the novel, centers on Tan’s grandmother, whose story and true identity became known to Tan only a few years ago, as her own mother was dying of Alzheimer’s.

AMY TAN: She was raped by a man who was well-to-do, and she had nowhere else to go. She had lost face. And she had to join this man’s household, because she was now pregnant with this man’s son. And she found the only way she could gain her power was to kill herself.

SPENCER MICHELS: Tan, whose earlier acclaimed novel “The Joy Luck Club” became a movie, has been intricately involved in the opera, “The Bonesetter’s Daughter.” She not only wrote the libretto, but she has been coaching some of the performers.

AMY TAN: You don’t know why, you still feel guilty, you did it to not feel guilty, and you still do.

Influences on the opera

SPENCER MICHELS: From the outset, Tan worked closely with composer Stewart Wallace, who was a friend before this collaboration.

Wallace, who was a Jewish cantor before he composed five previous full-length operas, said the challenge with this project was to create a work about China, where much of the story takes place, but not so Chinese as to alienate Western audiences.

STEWART WALLACE, Composer: My goal was to find a way to write my music in my language with the feeling of China. We put the first scene in a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco. So everything happens in a world that we're very familiar with, but that's also linked to the story that's to come.

SPENCER MICHELS: Wallace said he made the framework of the opera simpler than the very complex novel.

STEWART WALLACE: This is fundamentally an American opera. And that is the experience of coming from someplace else, coming here, being separated from your root culture, and having that longing for that knowledge.

SPENCER MICHELS: He and Tan traveled to China where Tan's ancestors lived, and they visited villages to soak up the culture and the music.

STEWART WALLACE: We arrived there, and there were bands everywhere, and the music -- I kid you not -- the two suonas, the Chinese trumpets, and the four percussion, the music sounded like klezmer wedding music to me. It felt very familiar, the wildness, the reckless abandon, the joy, and also the sadness.

SPENCER MICHELS: For Tan, the trips added detail and context to her lifelong fascination with her own roots. Accompanied by her half-sisters, who still live in China, she traveled by ferry boat to the island of Chongming to find the house where their grandmother lived and died.

AMY TAN: That past informed my lifetime. It influenced me, because it was my mother's experience. So to go back there and discover it, either to actually go back to China, to go through a novel or an opera is one of the most satisfying things in my life. It is the meaning of my life.

SPENCER MICHELS: "The Bonesetter's Daughter" explores the powerful relationships between grandmothers, mothers, and daughters. In ways not always obvious, Tan says, ancestors influence all of our lives.

AMY TAN: There was a photo of her above the piano, and that was my grandmother watching to make sure I played an hour a day.

Elements of Chinese opera

SPENCER MICHELS: Tan's ancestors lived with superstition. Ghosts were part of their life. And even today, she says, ghosts of old relatives infuse her creative process.

AMY TAN: Sometimes I believe in ghosts. In my life, I have had many surprises when I'm writing a novel or when I'm thinking about something, and I get these ideas that I feel they couldn't have possibly come from just me and they're gifts from the universe. And sometimes I think they're gifts from my grandmother or somebody who has a connection to me, a profound connection to me.

SPENCER MICHELS: As an opera, "The Bonesetter's Daughter" exploits the supernatural, using a phalanx of acrobats and singers and Chinese musicians, employing modern techniques to create a dream world of the past.

Chen Shi-Zheng is the director, a Chinese-born opera singer, movie, and theater director who links modern opera with traditional Chinese opera.

CHEN SHI-ZHENG, Director: In Chinese opera, always been this incredible integration between dance and music, poetry and the acrobat. So I wanted to make this opera in a way integrated elements of Chinese opera, the highs, the sense of a spectacle.

SPENCER MICHELS: For Chen, who grew up during the Cultural Revolution, Tan's sometimes violent story resonates.

CHEN SHI-ZHENG: To me, that death is quite a familiar thing, growing up seeing many people getting killed during the Cultural Revolution, and the myth of China to me is fascinating. But I was very interested to find a modern vocabulary to depict old China.

SPENCER MICHELS: Chen, a star in both China and U.S. cultural circles, says both countries can relate to Tan's story.

CHEN SHI-ZHENG: Every immigrant who comes to this country has left something in China. They come to America looking for something. To me, this is an immigrant's story.

SPENCER MICHELS: But as opening night drew closer and Chen had to shape the production, he realized his vision of the opera differed somewhat from Tan's.

CHEN SHI-ZHENG: Maybe she wanted to get across some relationship with her mother, you know, how the daughter reacts, and I was telling her, I said, "You have to allow the opera experience to happen."

But I basically told her, Amy, that you have to leave that to me. This is opera. This is a director's job. We cannot have two directors. So you have to trust me or have the opera -- otherwise, we don't have the opera.

Resolving creative differences

SPENCER MICHELS: But Tan insisted her experiences were at the heart of the opera, as well as the novel.

AMY TAN: Maybe they'll stay the pacing is slow, we need to just -- maybe we should cut this scene out. And I say, "Wait a minute, that's part of the meaning of the story. And if you don't know this, you don't understand why she did this and why she became suicidal."

SPENCER MICHELS: Tan says the credits in the program explain why her life story must determine how the opera is produced.

AMY TAN: Music by Stewart Wallace, libretto by Amy Tan, based on her novel, which is based on her life, which is based on her mother's life, which is based on her grandmother's life.

And that's it. That is the thing that is the foundation of this opera. And you can't change a life. You can't change what's already happened.

SPENCER MICHELS: In the end, those creative differences were resolved with most of the scenes Tan was fighting for remaining in the production.

"The Bonesetter's Daughter" opened in mid-September with performances through October 3rd at the San Francisco Opera House.

RAY SUAREZ: There's more on our Web site, where you can watch extended interviews with Amy Tan, composer Stewart Wallace, and director Chen Shi-Zheng. You can find it all at Just scroll down to NewsHour Reports.