Q & A: Composer Tan Dun on Creating ‘Buddha Passion’

By David Salazar

Tan Dun is arguably the most famous and influential Chinese composer, having written numerous operas such as “The First Emperor,” “Marco Polo,” “The Peony Pavilion,” and “Tea: A Mirror of Soul.” He has also written film scores (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), organic music, and several classical and symphonic works. And now, there’s “Buddha Passion.”

Inspired by the famed Chinese composer’s visits to the Mogao Caves near Dunhuang, the work reframes the traditional Passion from a Christian narrative to a Buddhist one. Using ancient Chinese and Sanskrit texts to illustrate lessons taught by the Buddha, the work is scored for six singers, including two indigenous artists, a double choir with traditional instruments, and orchestra.

“Buddha Passion” had its world premiere in 2018 at the Dresden Music Festival and is now headed to London, where Dun will conduct the work on Jan. 22, 2023.

OperaWire recently spoke with the composer about the creative process for “Buddha Passion.”

OperaWire: How long has this project been in the making? I know the Mogao Caves were an inspiration.

Tan Dun: Yes. About eight years ago, I was invited by the Dunhuang Foundation to visit the Mogao caves, and I began to study the old manuscripts from the Library Cave. It is an extraordinary place. There are hundreds of cave temples in Dunhuang, an important oasis city on the Silk Road.

For 30 years, the caves have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and they are truly a fantastic wonder of the world. There are over four thousand murals on which numerous musical instruments can be identified. And there were also old manuscripts with over a hundred hours of music found there. Today, these are spread over different countries; most of them are located at the national libraries of France and Great Britain. I spent two years to see, check, and research them. I tried to decipher the musical language and was able to incorporate interesting song material, melodies, and timbres into my orchestral material.

When I was first introduced to one of the music manuscripts, the heart sutra, I remember when I opened it, I heard the sounds from 1500 years ago … from the Gobi Desert in China. Somehow, these ancient caves, paintings, and manuscripts were vibrating for me. From a purely musical point of view, this work made me crazy happy!

OW: What is your composition process? What are the first things you focus on when creating a new work, and how long does it take?

TD: Actually, the process of composing is pretty much like being pregnant and having a baby. You have to read and prepare for the conception and birthing of your spiritual baby. Of course, around this preparation and research, I visited the caves many times and viewed the 1,500-year-old music murals over and over again. I was trying to see the sound from the cave paintings and trying to hear the pictures. Then, to a certain degree, you find yourself pregnant from all the inspiration. From there, you start to think about stories, structure…and thirdly, after your story and structure have been confirmed, you think about the musical material, its characters, contrasts, and melodies. You are making a baby with nature together.

OW: What is your approach to writing for vocal soloists in a work like this as opposed to an opera or other vocal repertory? How did you go about selecting the voice types, and what their individual functions would be in the work? You also have indigenous singers in this score. How did you find the balance for combining their vocal styles with the other four classical voices?

TD: Composers, especially when I was a young composer, were not aware that soloists/singers are also an instrument. Their instrument grows with their body and spirit together and, thus, much more sensitive. You need to find a certain kind of texture for the vocal line to feed that instrument. For example, when you write for violin, trumpet, and cello, you write differently for each. The motif is also different. It is very interesting to write texture for the voice. When I first rehearsed my big opera with Placido Domingo, I wrote a lot of sliding gestures from low to high and high to low; I learned that you need to know the muscle well, know the instrument well, and then you can be a good vocal writer.

For the indigenous singers, is it music or notation first? I always raise this kind of question to myself; it always makes me think about indigenous music. No notation, but pushes expression extremely to the edge. That is why for a big classical opera, among those fine classical singers, you need to have all kinds of spices and spiritual power. Indigenous music has that. That is why you need to be brave for contemporary music and close the gap between indigenous traditions and future classical discoveries. It is good that our generation does not forget indigenous traditions.

OW: What did you learn from the composition of “Buddha Passion” How did it change you as a composer?

TD: Compared to my earlier writing for opera and the voice, such as “The First Emperor,” I feel this piece was much clearer and easier for me. I have grown as a composer in that I am much more focused on my storytelling. “Buddha Passion” is in six acts, six mini-operas, and six stories, very slim and clear. Quick and to the point. This kind of storytelling feels closer to stories told in film and less like those at an opera house. This is quite different for me from before.

OW: What do you hope audiences take away from the experience of “Buddha Passion”

TD: With this composition, Buddha’s stories are told using Western orchestras and Western singers. Buddhism came to China two thousand years ago. Five hundred years ago, it was almost declared a state religion. Nowadays, it largely determines the spiritual life of many Chinese. And yet, in the West, we don’t hear it celebrated in concert halls the same way we hear music about Western religions. I hope to change that.

OW: Finally, are you working on any new operas?

Yes, I am working on a new opera about Jews in Shanghai… I am not quite pregnant with that one yet.


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