The First Emperor Opera Review by Aaron Hayes

"The First Emperor"By Tan Dun World Premiere: Metropolitan Opera, New York, December 21, 2006

reviewed by, Aaron Hayes


Placido Domingo as Qin Shi Huang

Tan Dun's recently premiered opera, The First Emperor, has not surprisingly been hailed as a masterful synthesis of Eastern and Western musical traditions. In fact, the story line itself takes up this theme, as the Emperof Chin searches for an "everlasting anthem" to unify the spirit of his new nation. When it comes to the work of Tan Dun, the theme of unity and East-West collaboration can be found around every corner. But East-West encounters these days often bring to mind mini Zen rock gardens and Confucius day calendars, and so the danger with this piece—as the composer recognized—is not so much the failure of unity, but the potential for the opera to fall into the shallow waters over which our regular supply of Kung-Fu movies and Oriental mysticism are shipped. Thankfully, this opera does succeed in escaping such naïve musical syncretism. But in order to accomplish this, the composer must use what at first seems like a sort of cheap method of organizing the music. Only in fulfilling this method can Tan Dun turn it into a brilliant work, which may revive the tradition of opera out of its modernistic slumbers.

Generally, Tan Dun's compositional genius lies in his ability to distill powerful musical effects from many different traditions and organize them into genuinely new and fascinating works. The list of contributing styles of music does not merely arise from the composer's roots in the folk music of the Hunan province and his Western compositional training. Rather, many different musical practices from around the world are taken into account by this composer. Taking instrumental sounds, compositional forms, and various ideas on melody and harmony from these practices, Tan Dun finds exactly what is most notable in them and uses them for his own purposes. But these musical elements are never simply quoted from a familiar convention, nor are they taken completely out of context. Passages which may sound particularly influenced by some tradition or another are created to present only what is most powerful and essential in a certain rhythm, harmony, or instrument. This often leads to very new ways of hearing traditional sounds. Tan Dun does not so much compose with notes as he does musical effects.

In itself, this technique is dangerous, since it is very similar to composing movie music, which is created with the goal of evoking certain emotional responses without regard to musical significance. But unlike a movie score, with all the bad guy cues and love scenes, the musical conventions which constitute this opera and much of Tan Dun's music come from such a diverse background that their musical juxtaposition allows for entirely different meaning and depth. Taken alone, any moment in this opera could be understood in terms of other past musical traditions. This is why, despite the Tan Dun's efforts, he is often considered a post-modern composer. Many of the traditional Chinese instruments give certain passages a clearly 'Oriental' sound, as do the pentatonic melodic lines and un-translated (in language and style) Peking Opera introduction and interludes. Even the use of sound mass and indeterminate pitch can be understood in terms of their 20th century Western compositional development. And it is, of course, an opera, whose scope and style picks up where the 19th century left off. Even if some point in the music cannot be traced to a clear predecessor, it reminds us somewhat of this or that composer or folk tradition.

An opera which combines East and West is not a novel concept; by at least the mid 19th century, composers had figured out that rotated pentatonic scales are to western tonality as soy sauce is to rice. Asia has long been a source of exoticism, and there are many icons which could easily be incorporated into an otherwise western piece in order to make it 'Oriental' sounding. In order to escape this, Tan Dun has mastered the very technique which traditionally is used to present those Asian elements to Western ears. His act of incorporating exotic sounds into the opera makes all of the opera exotic. There is no familiar territory to which we can return.

One way Tan Dun accomplishes this is through the compositional precision of the entire piece. His attention to detail at every moment creates music which is consistent in its quality throughout every passage. In many of the string parts for example, the violins and cellos momentarily take on the sound of traditional Chinese instruments, even as their counterparts sit next to them in the pit. Because the instructions for performing are very accurate, especially in the manner of articulation, (though probably not as much as in his Out of Peking Opera and The Intercourse of Fire and Water) the subtlety and originality is not hidden behind the seeming familiarity of 'Oriental' sounds. Tan Dun's attention to articulation rescues the Chinese influenced string writing from the ill fate of exoticism. The composer makes equal all those traditions from which he takes influence. But this step toward equality cannot be accomplished by making the exotic familiar. This would merely be the emotional colonialism of Broadway and Disney. Instead, by composing with these discreet affects, the composer is able to change their meaning to something more appropriately alien, and thereby bring us somewhere else than our tired musical consumption generally takes us.

This can be most clearly heard in many of the arias of this opera. In one respect, the lyrical qualities of the lines hearken back to the Italian operas which defined the tradition in Europe. Yet much of the harmonic context is defined by folk traditions which have fairly straightforward tonalities, though ones which do not lie easily in an unfamiliar ear. One result of this is that the melodic line often uses much larger intervals than might be heard in a European opera. But these larger intervals, combined with Tan Dun's colder harmonic vocabulary result in musical lines interestingly reminiscent of Webern's atonal songs. This sort of writing is what gives the opera its modern quality while avoiding the overuse of twentieth century avant-garde convention. In a similar manner, what often sounds like Expressionist Sprechtstimme is just as notably a result of the Chinese influence on the flow of language. Tan Dun takes into account the denotative qualities of voice inflection which have much more dramatically influenced the musical traditions in Asia. Along with fellow Chinese born composer Chen Yi, Tan Dun has successfully applied the indeterminate flow of Chinese to European musical lines sung in the English language. The result is not quite Schoenberg, but not quite the traditional Chinese folk song. The new context has refined these various musical sounds into their most basic meaning, their sonic effect. For this reason, even the tonal moments should not be considered in themselves as some functional harmony. Instead, moments of relative pleasure must be thought of in relation to the unsettling moments of indeterminate pitch or unfamiliar and jarring instrumental timbre. The entire piece is formed by the combination and relation of the somewhat discreet and contrasting use of sonic events, each of which you may feel as having heard somewhere before.

By the way, The First Emperor only runs at the Met until the end of January. A comparably grandiose production at the level of the Metropolitan Opera may not come around for some time. However, this piece is likely to become a classic of early twenty first century music, if not for its sheer quality then at least for the audacity of writing such a large scale work so closely attuned to the Operatic tradition of the West. For those who are into dramatic pyrotechnics and gigantic productions, then of course this opera is notable. The danger lies in this sort of quality, however. Because there are very consonant moments, and the drama is captivating, and we are perhaps gratified in some strange neo-colonial way with the extent of the Chinese quality to it, this opera is in danger of being appreciated for the wrong reasons. Indeed, there is 'something for everyone.' Only when each moment instills the right amount of mutual alienation can The First Emperor as a whole fulfill for us its potential as an original and powerful work.