Tan Dun's 'First Emperor' to Premiere at Met

Placido Domingo as Emperor Qin. i i

hide captionPlacido Domingo as Emperor Qin.

Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Placido Domingo as Emperor Qin.

Placido Domingo as Emperor Qin.

Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Tan Dun in His Own Words

Elizabeth Futral as Princess Yueyang. i i

hide captionElizabeth Futral as Princess Yueyang.

Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Elizabeth Futral as Princess Yueyang.

Elizabeth Futral as Princess Yueyang.

Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
A scene from a rehearsal of 'The First Emperor' i i

hide captionA scene from a rehearsal of 'The First Emperor.'

Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
A scene from a rehearsal of 'The First Emperor'

A scene from a rehearsal of 'The First Emperor.'

Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Peking Opera meets Grand Opera Thursday night on the stage of New York's Metropolitan Opera, as The First Emperor has its world premiere.

Composer Tan Dun's saga about the emperor who unified China and began building the Great Wall has been 10 years in the making. The $2 million production stars Placido Domingo as the emperor Qin.

"I hope my Eastern opera kind of experience and the Western opera knowledge will be melted together very chemically, become something new," says the composer who may be best known in the United States for his Oscar-winning score for the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Tan Dun's cross-cultural compositions have also drawn attention in the last decade, as has his use of unconventional percussion instruments. He finds music in stones, water and paper.

Born in China's Hunan Province, he was sent to be "re-educated" as a rice farmer during China's cultural revolution. During two years in the countryside, he says, he "melted this bitterness into something quite interesting" by collecting folks songs and musical materials from the farmers.

When the Beijing Conservatory reopened after Mao's death, Tan Dun took his knowledge of Chinese folk music and applied — along with 50,000 others — for one of the school's ten slots in music composition. He got in, spending almost a decade at the conservatory, studying both Mozart and Peking Opera.

Eventually he moved to New York, where he got his doctorate at Columbia University.

Ten years ago, the Met called, offering Tan Dun a commission. He chose to write an opera about China's first emperor. The history was rich, the setting exotic and the drama filled with musical possibilities.

The First Emperor takes place 2,400 years ago, the point in history when Emperor Qin conquered seven warring kingdoms, unifying the country, its language and its currency. Tan Dun says Qin also wanted to find a way to tie together the country's spirit by getting a composer to write a national anthem.

"This subject — the first emperor trying to find a piece of music — it's a kind of a metaphor, spiritual metaphor, for him to find a destiny, find a spirit of the nation," Tan Dun says.

The First Emperor has all the melodrama and trappings of grand opera. There's a forbidden love story involving the emperor's daughter and the musician he's asked to write the anthem. There's a chorus of slaves building the Great Wall. There's even gruesome death and bloodshed, says tenor Paul Groves, who plays the doomed musician, Gao Jianli.

"I hate to give away the end, but, you know, I... I have a very dramatic ending," Groves says. "I guarantee you I will be the only person on the Met stage that has ever bitten their tongue off!"

Tan Dun, who co-wrote the libretto with Chinese-American novelist Ha Jin, wanted to create a musical style that reflected the historical era. In his research, he discovered that ceramic urns were used as drums, so he incorporated that element into his score.

In the opera's first scene, Tan Dun has 12 large drums that stretch across the stage of the Met. The drummers, in highly stylized movements, hit the heads of the drums, with large stones, then bang the stones together.

The production is directed by Zhang Yimou, the Chinese filmmaker, whose work includs The House of Flying Daggers and Hero, among others. In addition to Domingo as the ruthless yet sentimental emperor, soprano Elizabeth Futral has a major roel as the tragic teenage Princess Yueyang.

All nine performances of The First Emperor at the Metropolitan Opera are already sold out, but the premiere can be heard live, in streaming audio, on the Met's website Thursday night. In January, the opera will be beamed into movie theaters around the world in high definition video.

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