A “voyage through tea,” Tan Dun's opera uses the composer's concept of organic music to create a musical and theatrical experience that explores matters of the ...
Tea : a mirror of soul : opera in three acts, libretto by Tan Dun and Xu Ying ; music by Tan Dun ; Production, NHK ; Parnassus Productions ; stage director, Pierre Audi ; video director, Frank Scheffer ; producer, Keiko Manabe., (videorecording :)
ACT 1: Water, Fire Scene 1 Japan, in ancient times. Inside a temple in Kyoto. Silence. A tea garden. Floating paper as set, as shadow screens, as musical instruments. Layers of paper with deconstructed video images. Paper costumes.
Water music wafts in, with shadow voice sending a message of rebirth. The Japanese tea ceremony continues. It is bitter and silent. High monk Seikyo raises an empty teapot, passes an empty bowl, and with obvious relish, savors empty tea ritualistically: one sip, two, then half. Chanting monks ask why he savors the tea from emptiness. Seikyo, a Prince by birth, replies that ten years ago he became a monk because of his bitter love …
Scene 2 Ten years earlier. ChangAn, ancient capital of China. Scenes of family bliss inside the palace. Deconstructed images of the palace are reflected on paper screens. Beautiful Lan (the Princess) and her brother (the Prince) are performing for their father (the Emperor) a shadow-puppet opera from within The Monkey King, the most frequently performed opera set to the Chinese legend “Buddha Passion.”
What is compelling to you about the story?
I drew on traditional stories as a basis for the libretto, but the text itself was written freely in my own words. For example, the phrase “to see the sound, to hear the colour.” Excerpts from the Jin Ping Mei and other expressions of nature have been used to reflect these words and give them a double meaning. The music has been designed to convey the duality of the spiritual inner space and its physical external counterpart. This form of expression is encapsulated in, and structured by, the concept of “organic music.”
Can you talk about the significance of tea — to you, to the characters and to Japanese and Chinese culture?
In my research for Tea I travelled around Japan and China and learned that Japanese tea is a “mirror of the soul.” When I was in the southern regions of China, which is of course the home of tea, I had the opportunity to interview an eminent nun. She always presents to her first-time guests an empty tea bowl, and on such occasions she herself also puts an empty tea bowl to her lips, as if to drain it of its contents. In this very action her spiritual world view becomes vividly apparent. There was, for me, something greatly enlightening about the spirit of Chinese tea as made manifest in her, and about the spirit of Japanese tea. In this opera, which I refer to as my “voyage through Tea,” I make use of these two elements on several occasions.
Can you talk about the unusual instrumentation, the “organic” aspect of your music?
I have for many years continued to experiment with the use of water, paper and earthenware as instruments in my music. As I was travelling around researching tea in China and Japan, I came to the realization that “organic music” already existed in these two countries. For instance, before entering a tea ceremony room in Japan, one doesn’t merely wash one’s hands. Rather, in the action of washing the hands, the soul is washed and cleansed too. As is suggested in this example, “organic music” concerns both matters of everyday life and matters of the heart, and I have attempted to incorporate it into Tea as an underpinning concept. In the Cha Jing (The Book of Tea) itself, the author Lu Yu writes about water, wind (the sound of paper), fire and earthenware, and I wanted to assimilate all of these elements into my work, because they are all essential to the aesthetics of tea. This is a further example of the opera’s concern with double meaning.
You also write film music: does that influence your concert music? Or vice versa?
I have to say that film music has always been exciting to me as it is connected to a visual story and synchronized with moods and actions. To me, writing for film is very much like writing for opera. Opera and cinema are very similar. Before film, opera functioned very much like the cinema does today and I am sure that the future of opera will become more like the cinema as both medias continue to grow. To me, opera is ancient film and film is future opera.
Tan Dun on TEA in Conversation with Keiko Manabe (Chief Producer at Suntory Hall) Keiko Manabe: Some five years have passed since Suntory Hall in Tokyo commissioned a new work from you for its biannual staged concert-platform “Hall Opera” series. Not only were you responsible for the musical composition, but you also created the framework and libretto. You’ve often referred to these past five years as your “voyage through Tea”. Would it be appropriate to say that today finally marks the endpoint of that journey for you? Tan Dun: Yes. In my research for Tea I travelled around Japan and China and learned that Japanese tea is a “mirror of the soul”. When I was in the southern regions of China, which is of course the home of tea, I had the opportunity to interview an eminent nun. She always presents to her first-time guests an empty tea bowl, and on such occasions she herself also puts an empty tea bowl to her lips, as if to drain it of its contents. In this very action her spiritual world-view becomes vividly apparent. There was for me something greatly enlightening about the spirit of Chinese tea as made manifest in her, and about the spirit of Japanese tea. In this opera, which I refer to as my “voyage through Tea”, I make use of these two elements on several occasions.
KM: You’ve actually just answered a question that I was intending to pose. In your opera I noticed that there were various references made to, and suggestions drawn from, literary works such as the Xi You Ji (Journey to the West), the Jin Ping Mei (the Golden Lotus), and of course the Cha Jing (the Book of Tea). But what I could not figure out was where the line “though bowl is empty” is derived from. It is a key line and opens the piece, but is also used several times thereafter. There certainly are words used in this opera that seem to be charged with double meanings – to both surprising and delightful effect. Even the music can be interpreted as being constructed by means of the two aforementioned elements, can it not? TD: When I first began to polish up the framework for this opera, I said to Xu Ying, with whom I co-wrote the libretto, that the music and libretto must share the same structure and the same direction. I wanted the resonances of the music and the diction of the words to reflect a double meaning throughout. This involved sometimes making the libretto fit the rhythm of the score, and sometimes making the score follow the progression of the libretto. The same can be said of the story excerpts that were incorporated. For example, the Xi You Ji is about a westward quest in search of the true Buddhist Sutra, and the opera duplicates that scenario at the point where the voyagers set off to look for the Book of Tea, or, in other words, the Sutra of Tea. Again, in Act I scene 2, the little brother is mimicking the Monkey King (a character from the Xi You Ji) in a play within a play, and in Act III, when he steals the Cha Jing, notice that he uses the exact same words as he does in his charade in Act I scene 2. Furthermore, when the Emperor sings his song of lamentation on hearing the news of Lan’s death, the same words and accompanying music are again recapitulated. We incorporated aspects of the Xi You Ji storyline for its philosophical symbolism, and it also shares structural or plot-related links with Tea on many levels.
KM: There is for instance the line “without you, life is living death”. Are those your words? TD: Yes. I drew on traditional stories as a basis for the libretto, but the text itself was written freely in my own words: for example, the phrase “to see the sound, to hear the colour”. Excerpts from the Jin Ping Mei and other expressions of nature have been used to reflect these words and give them a double meaning. The music has been designed to convey the duality of the spiritual inner space and its physical external counterpart. This form of expression is encapsulated in, and structured by, the concept of “organic music”.
KM: This concept of “organic music” has been said to give a new definition to your music. Could you elaborate on it? TD: I have for many years continued to experiment with the use of water, paper and earthenware as instruments in my music. As I was travelling around “researching tea” in China and Japan, I came to the realization that “organic music” already existed in these two countries. For instance, before entering a tea ceremony room in Japan, one doesn’t merely wash one’s hands. Rather, in the action of washing the hands, the soul is washed and cleansed too. As is suggested in this example, “organic music” concerns both matters of everyday life and matters of the heart, and I have attempted to incorporate it into Tea as an underpinning concept. In the Cha Jing itself, the author Lu Yu writes about water, wind (the sound of paper), fire and earthenware, and I wanted to assimilate all of these elements into my work, because they are all essential to the aesthetics of tea. This is a further example of the opera’s concern with double meaning. This work is more a natural outgrowth of our daily lives than something intellectually conceived. However, to incorporate all the elements we’ve been speaking about, to weave their multifarious natures into the totality of the work, was extremely problematic and enormously challenging for me. Firstly, arranging and annotating the “organic music” had to be done very simplistically, or it would just not be playable. Secondly, the simple “organic music”, the resonance of the orchestra, and the voices of the singers all had to be blended together well, coherently, as in a mosaic pattern. To do this with these three sections was technically very difficult. But in the end, I was satisfied with the result.
KM: We were fortunate enough to be able to hold a Tea opera workshop in Shanghai in June, and we had a chance to listen to that exquisite blend for ourselves. The three sections did indeed seem to be gelling in a delightfully natural way. TD: Those four days in Shanghai were like a “Tea ceremony of music” for me. The whole affair inspired a lot of new ideas, and when Keiko asked me to write a piece with a “hall opera” concept, the more I listened to her explanation, the more I began to think that this was an incredibly exciting thing to get involved in. Also, when I was shown some video footage of past “hall operas”, I was immediately struck by their resemblance to classical forms of drama – to such open-air or staged productions as ancient Greek plays, Chinese festive ceremonies and operas, or the No and Kyo-gen traditions of Japan.
Firstly, there is no boundary between the set design and the instruments. Secondly, there is no boundary between the instrumentalists and the singers. Thirdly, there is no boundary between the “organic music” and the conventional orchestra. Fourthly, there is no boundary between the audience and the performers moving and acting on stage.
In this opera when we put three female percussionists on the actual stage, the image was influenced directly by Nō and Kabuki. The percussionists create the spirit of water and wind (the spirit of holiness), and the spirit of fate is represented by the earthenware and stones. The orchestra itself plays a direct role as a sort of “God’s eye perspective”, for example when it sings and speaks during the fight between Sheng Xiang and Lan’s younger brother. In Act II even the music the orchestra plays from becomes a part of the stage set while the musicians flip though the pages to recreate the sound of wind and rustling trees.These ideas find their origin in the animistic notion that material objects have spirits residing in them; an idea ever-present in the old village where I grew up in China. Paper can talk to the violin, the violin to water. Water can communicate with trees, and trees can do the same with the moon, and so on. In other words, every little thing in the totality of things, the entire universe, has a life and a soul. That the audience is unable to watch the body and hand movements of the instrumentalists because they are situated in an orchestra pit is always disappointing to me when I watch a European opera. After all, they too are involved along with the singers in creating dramatic effects. In “hall opera” it is possible to scrutinize all the movements of both the instrumentalists and the singers, and to see how they make eye contact and interact with the conductor. In this respect I think “hall opera” is a more developed form of opera. Although it may strike European audiences as quite novel, the audiences of Japan and China should be able to recognize it as something very traditional.
The archetypal European operas by such figures as Mozart and Wagner belong to a development of the last 300 years, whereas “hall opera” has more in common with the older forms of dramatic art found in Japan, China or ancient Greece while also being adaptable to new forms of multimedia and technology. In accepting the invitation to create a “hall opera” – which can be performed in a concert hall, a warehouse, or a stadium – I was reminded of my youth in a small Chinese village, where I would perform in traditional festive ceremonies and, later on, play musical pieces associated with classical Chinese opera. I am therefore deeply grateful to Suntory Hall for its commission, and to Keiko, our producer, who constantly gave me words of encouragement and managed the project to its completion.
KM: While being contemporary in style, this opera is also brimming with beautiful and accessible melodies, the kind that anybody could sing along to. TD: It is just for that reason that I chose to compose an opera rather than a symphony – or a piece of chamber music, or jazz or rock music, for that matter. My first priority in composing Tea was that of structuring it by means of a mélange of “organic music”, song, words and fable. My second priority was melody. Undertaking an opera, after all, means creating melodies, composing songs. In addition, they should be memorable melodies that anybody can imitate, so I focused much of my attention on them accessible, simple and technically easy to perform. Beautiful melodies are timeless, boundless and appeal to all hearts. Puccini, for example, drew on Japanese folksongs in Madama Butterfly, and in Turandot he uses a Chinese folksong no less than five times, one that is still sung in China today. I think of a melody line as a vibration that is emitted naturally from the body. All words have a melodic component to them. So when our libretto was finished, most of the musical composition had already been completed in my head. The vocal lines that I write come from a number of inspirations: the proclamation chants of the Japanese and Tibetan priests of olden times, the recitation methods of Chinese poetry, the diction and vocal techniques found in No, Kyo-gen and classical Chinese opera, and Italian opera from the earliest examples to Puccini.
KM: You recommended Pierre Audi as director of Tea’s world première. How did that come about? TD: Actually, around the time I was invited to compose an opera for Suntory Hall, I had similar offers from New York City Opera and from Netherlands Opera, where Pierre is Artistic Director. But I’d been toying with using the concept of tea for some time, and because Japan is renowned for its tea, and because its people understand that tea should be a reflection of the soul, I very much wanted to work with the Japanese. However, I wanted Pierre to direct my opera because he is one of the most sophisticated and talented directors of our day. He has had invaluable experience from directing many operas and various other new projects at London’s Almeida Theatre. Also, having been born in Lebanon, raised in Paris and educated at Oxford, he is sensitive to both Western and Eastern cultures. Further still, he’s able to read thoroughly and deeply into a given work, something that has been reconfirmed for me at these rehearsals in Amsterdam. For instance, he spent an entire morning on just three notes. At first I felt a little anxious about this, but after the three hours he devoted to this seemingly small passage, I realized how crucially significant these notes actually were to the entire composition. He does not explicitly teach singers how to perform, but rather makes them analyse and ponder on the importance of each individual note and chord. He is always trying to bring out the dramatic aspects of the piece in tandem with the music, and I can merely say that we are very lucky to have had the opportunity to work with him.
KM: I feel it safe to say that this opera has lived up to the expectation that you and Suntory Hall initially placed on it, namely to be a “truly international production”. Even the singers hail from various countries, including China, the United Kingdom, the United States and The Netherlands. It seems that this largely Eastern-inspired opera has consolidated an international foundation to make it worthy of performance on a global scale. TD: Yes, I agree. This is “an international Tea party”. We’ve taken the cultural differences in people’s everyday experiences and treated them as a mirror, and we now share that process of self-reflection with audiences.
KM: It is regrettable that Keizo Saji [1919-1999], the founder of Suntory Hall, could not be here to witness the completion of this production. He was looking forward to it greatly. TD: When I conducted Marco Polo four years ago at Suntory Hall, I remember Mr. Saji visiting my dressing room after the performance. On meeting him then, I got the extraordinary impression just by looking into his eyes that he was man of powerful cultural spirit and imagination. As I understand it, his vision was to turn Suntory Hall into a bridge between the cultures of East and West, and so I felt as if Mr. Saji’s aspirations were in a sense accompanying and supporting me in my “voyage through Tea”. I would like to dedicate this work to the memory of Keizo Saji, a towering artistic figure of the 20th century who was at the forefront of the effort towards connecting the world’s musical traditions.
–Translation: Leo Alexander Imai; October 2, 2002
DIALOGUES WITH TAN DUN
Tan Dun, known for his award-winning score for the filmCrouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, composed a 2002 opera called Tea: A Mirror of Soul. This May Tea gets its Canadian premiere with Vancouver Opera. Tea’s story is set in ancient Japan. Seikyo, who was a prince by birth but is now a monk, recounts to his fellow monks the story of how he came to the temple. Earlier, in China, he had fallen in love with Princess Lan. Her jealous brother, the prince, challenged him to find The Book of Tea. Seikyo found Lu, daughter of the tea sage, who handed over the book, insisting they spread the word about the powers of tea. The prince attacked Seikyo and Lan was killed when she intervened. The prince was mortified and offered himself in sacrifice, but Seikyo declined and chose to live the rest of his life as a monk. Tan Dun’s score is a rich and striking blend of Eastern and Western musical traditions. He incorporates “organic music,” his signature use of natural materials as instruments — in this case, with onstage percussionists playing large bowls of water, paper panels, ceramic pots and stone. The week before Vancouver Opera’s opening, Tun Dun agreed to talk tea with CBC Classical.