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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

On stage at the Metropolitan Opera in New York tonight, something a little different. You could call it East meets West or Peking opera meets grand opera. It is the world premiere of a production 10 years in the making. “The First Emperor” by Tan Dun stars Placido Domingo. It's the story of the emperor who unified China and began building the Great Wall.

From New York, Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFFREY LUNDEN: Chances are there have never been sounds like these coming from the stage and orchestra pit of the Metropolitan Opera.

(Soundbite of “The First Emperor”)

Mr. TAN DUN: I hope my Eastern opera kind of experience and a Western opera knowledge will be mounted together very chemically, becomes something new.

LUNDEN: But composer Tan Dun is probably best known for his Academy Award winning score for “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.” But his cross cultural compositions have been getting a lot of notice in the last of decade, as has his use of his unconventional percussion instruments. He finds music in stones, water and paper.

Tan Dun's path to the Metropolitan Opera has been anything but straight. He was born in China's Hunan Province and as a young man during the Cultural Revolution was sent to be reeducated as a rice farmer.

Mr. TAN: But in the countryside, that was lovely two years to me because I melted this bitterness into something quite interesting as well as to collect folk songs, interesting old music materials from the farmers.

LUNDEN: After Mao Zedong died and the Beijing Conservatory reopened, Tan Dun took his knowledge of Chinese folk music, and applied, along with 50,000 others, for one of the school's 10 slots in music composition. And he got in. He spent almost a decade at the conservatory, studying both Mozart and Peking opera, eventually moving to New York, where he got his doctorate at Columbia.

(Soundbite of music)

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

“The First Emperor” takes place 2,400 years ago, when seven warring kingdoms were conquered by the tyrannical Emperor Qin, who unified the country and its language in currency. Tan Dun says Emperor Qin also wanted to find a way to tie together the country's sprit by getting a composer to write a national subject.

Mr. TAN: 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.

(Soundbite of “The First Emperor”)

Mr. PLACIDO DOMINGO (Tenor): (Singing) Where is the beauty (unintelligible)

LUNDEN: “The First Emperor” has all the melodrama and trappings of grand opera. There's forbidden love story between the emperor's daughter and the musician he 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.

Mr. PAUL GROVES (Tenor): I hate to give away the end, but you know, I have a very dramatic ending. I guarantee you I will be the only person on the Met stage that has ever bitten their tongue off.

LUNDEN: 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.

And Tan Dun also came upon references to stone drumming, which lead to a happy accident in his music study.

Mr. TAN: The books talking about stone drumming, stone drumming. But actually, what is a stone jamming? Is the stone heated the stone, or the stone heat the of a drum? Or is the stone to bury on the ground.

And the once will now has - sort of climbing up my studio, and there's a big storm falling down from the shelf on the plants. It says dum, dum, dum, dum. Wow. I thought very, very interesting.

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

(Soundbite of “The First Emperor”)

LUNDEN: The production is directed by Zhang Yimou, the Chinese filmmaker who directed “House of Flying Daggers” and “Hero,” among others. Superstar tenor Domingo as the ruthless yet sentimental emperor. At a recent press conference, Domingo said it's been a channel to Western sensibilities into an Eastern viewpoint.

Mr. DOMINGO: One of the most interesting thing it has been for us, for the whole cast, to look for the Eastern kind of moments and feelings, which are certainly different, even though deep inside, we will feel the same way, all human beings.

(Soundbite of music)

LUNDEN: Soprano Elizabeth Futral plays the tragic teenage Princess Yueyang. She says composer Tan Dun's score asks her to sometime sing in different ways than she's used to, like the ways she sings trills.

Ms. ELIZABETH FUTRAL (Soprano): Sort of a typical baroque trill. I'd start slowly.

(Singing) Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.

But contrary, you generally start immediately in the trill.

(Singing) Ha.

And often, Tan Dun asks for -

(Singing) Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.

But gradually, it gets sort of that bell contra sound, but it doesn't start that way.

(Soundbite of music)

LUNDEN: Just days before tonight's premiere, composer Tan Dun was still tinkering with the score, trying to tailor it to fit the stage of the Met and the singers.

Mr. TAN: It's changing all the time, especially when the music is about to flow in the air from the paper. And you know, you find that the space is different and the storytelling is completely different, and sometimes, it needs to be longer, sometimes it needed to be shorter. But basically, I have to say there's no major changes.

LUNDEN: All nine performances of “The First Emperor” at the Metropolitan Opera are completely sold out. But the premiere can be heard live in streaming audio on the Met's Web site tonight. And in January, the opera will be beamed into movie theaters around the world, in high definition video.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

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