San Francisco Opera 2021-22 Review: Dream of the Red Chamber

A Wondrous Philosophical Exploration Anchored by Star Performances from Konu Kim & Meigui Zhang

By Lois Silverstein
(Credit: Cory Weaver)

Bright Sheng and David Henry Hwang’s “Dream of the Red Chamber,” abundant with beauty, color, sound, and light, lifts the original tale from the 18th century novel by Cao Xueqin by setting it into a Buddhist/Confucianist perspective. Thus, while we recognize familiar societal obstacles that thwart Bao Yu and Dai Yu from their particular happiness and discover from the opening that human desire for happiness is based on illusion and doomed to failure. The monk-narrator, played by Francis Jue, clearly tells us from the outset, seeking our own ends will thwart us, since it is a false solution to the question. Unless we accept that life is something different than fulfillment of our desires., we will suffer more than we already do.  The central plot shows us how the two lovers must go beyond their personal wishes to endure. What contributes to their suffering is the belief that seeking and achieving their happiness is not what means the most.

And so with a crash of symbols, under the baton of Singaporean maestro Darrell Ang in his debut with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, the opera, which was presented here in a new version that differs from the 2016 score that San Francisco Opera previously performed, began. Dynamic, colorfully textured, the music coupling with the text to transmit the multiple dimensions of the theme and the overall accessible music. The narrator and the chorus of darkly clad figures set the stage, prepared by John Keene, and carry it forward through its two acts. “Good intentions come to nothing in the end,” the poet-monk says, not so much to warn as to remind. We must not believe what we think.

We know this, right? We only pretend we don’t. We go on living as if our desires fail to get realized because of external obstacles. Through the layering of the production in set, costumes, and moving parts of the scenery, we literally see these external obstacles are not the real problem. Nor whether the poet-monk-narrator is real or not. When he holds up the mirror with the twin sides, he emphasizes one is real and the other is fantasy. Before the curtain actually rose, he performed a series of prostrations. Did that make him a “real” monk? Was he performing a “real” ritual? Or was he putting us on? And for the sake of the show? Definitively, he says, my dream shows what is, actual life, its twin sides, reality and dream. This, he says, is my dream, and points toward the set. Come, follow me. I will show you.

Stan Lai, world-renown theater artist, and Tim Yip, Academy Award-winning designer, created the opulent and gorgeous production. Rising and falling backdrops and elaborate brocade and silks helped to weave the scenes of Chinese landscape both abstract and literal into the plot events. Gary Marder’s lighting design heightened both the realistic and dream-like atmosphere. Throughout, this multidimensionality never lost its hold. We traveled back and forth through these different layers with ease, river, cloud, time, and the timeless, easily loosening our hold on any fixed reality. Now we are in the dream, then we are in real life. Not only the scrims,  the screens, the multiple projections across the sets, but the multiple layers of splendid fabric flowing, flowing and flowing, yards and yards of it as river, cloud, story and time passing, accented the layers of human nature, the layers of perception in a human being, the layers of wish and memory as well. Will we ever get to the bottom of it? Or to the source? Or where it goes? Let alone what it means? Doubtful. Still we watch.


Tenor Konu Kim (center) as Bao Yu in “The Dream of the Red Chamber”

Traditional Conflict

South Korean tenor Konu Kim, making his San Francisco debut, took on the role of Bao Yu. As the young prince, he demanded his own wishes and desires satisfied even when opposed by his family tradition and needs. His bright and energetic voice carried this with ease. It accented his aging as well – I am a boy, I am a son, I am a man, I am a monk, in time and ultimately, in the ether.

Kim’s urgent singing accented the intense conflict between him and his traditional role. Extroverted and pressing, with agile and nimble movements around the stage, Kim kept the energy flowing in both acts, and his point of view. He sang with heartfelt intensity, in addition to his youthful vitality. At one moment, his manner and style gave a nod to “West Side Story in its tone, with its present and ever-assertive assurance.

As he butts up against the family tradition – his Mother, Aunt, Ladies in Waiting – we felt the pressure rise. Lady Wang, sung by mezzo-soprano Hyona Kim, and Granny Jia, sung by South Korean soprano Sabina Kim, each performed with intensity and point. Their contrasting arias illustrated how even within the family members, traditions do not hold fast, even when they desire them.

Lady Wang contrived to trick her son to marry the cousin who has the riches to redeem their family from imperial debt. This superseded her son’s personal wishes, even as Bao Yu is distraught. She justifies her action by explaining, “You didn’t understand destiny, so therefore I chose for you.”

Mezzo-soprano Guang Yang sang Aunt Xue, and soprano Meigui Zhang, in her San Francisco Opera debut, sang Dai Yu. Her voice literally floated past the space she stood in and “lived in” and created remarkable, layered beauty. Her vocal control both in tone and “piano” accented the poetry of her presence as well as the actual verses that drew her to Bao Yu. It was certainly the Yin to this Yang, the beautiful crimson flower to the stone. Both contributed to a landscape that loomed larger than even one of the landscape projections.

The solo performance on the “qin,” a Chinese stringed instrument played apparently by Dai Yu (but played in the orchestra by Zhou Yi), allowed us to catch a glimpse of the lovely Dai Yu in her most captivating mode. She seemed like poetry and a dream itself.

In Sunday’s live-streamed performance, Sun-ly Pierce sang the role of Bao Chai, replacing Hongni Wu, who was indisposed. Thanks to her for a fine and notable performance. That Bao Chai became a “rival” brought another dimension to the theme – the false dichotomy of sensuous and spiritual that the plot and us humans keep insisting on. Even in the opera tale, these two do not come across as hardened rivals. Her thoughtful and graceful performance was apt to the tone of the production, not strident, not aggressive, but tasteful and thoughtful.

Liesl McPherrin performed Stone (voice) / Lady in Waiting (in for Esther Tonea) and Yulan Piao performed Princess Jia (in for Karen Chia-ling Ho)

Sun-ly Pierce made her debut as Bao Chai (in for Hongni Wu) Note: Sun-ly Pierce was the only one making a debut yesterday. Both Liesl McPherrin and Yulan Piao made their debuts in Friday’s performance.

One of the features of the production was choosing to use English with Chinese subtitles rather than the other way around. To understand the conflicts in English made the issues much more available and helped to identify with the long-standing conflict that is neither unique to English-speaking countries nor Asian ones. The immediacy brought the emotional power of the story closer and made it more moving. We understood this very well.

The use of repetition of key lines such as “We live and die without knowing why” and “who cares for fallen petals” enlarged the thematic meaning, and further heightened the kind of simplicity and sincerity that pervades the whole performance of the opera. Against the elaborate sets and costumes, here we have a human drama that we know all too well. To give ourselves that perspective is to give us a chance to awaken to the gap between the two and question its meaning.

But, the outcome of the story as told by David Henry Hwang in his libretto with Bright Sheng emphasized the necessity of moving beyond the view of self-pity into the larger, more realistic vision, and refusing to indulge in the injustice of such an unequal and demeaning point of view.

Dying chords in Dai Yu’s aria, for instance, lifted us beyond literal death and instead evoked an open-ended response in which a universal perspective offers an alternative way to envision what life might very well be. The eloquent tableaux, visually static and sonorous presented the points of you and surpassed them with a finale that did not toy with simple dissatisfaction but reigned in a universe with far more simple sonority. The appeal of the “Dream of the Red Chamber” thus transcended even its aesthetics; here we have contemporary music that provides a feast of more than what we see and hear and feel.

I left the opera house enriched by its thoughtful exploration of however we live in the realm of the ordinary and the extraordinary, there is much more that is beyond the frame, as it should be.


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