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Amy Tan: Novelist Turned Librettist

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Amy Tan: Novelist Turned Librettist

Amy Tan: Novelist Turned Librettist

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When composer Stewart Wallace began to travel to China a few years ago with a novelist, Amy Tan, they were in search of an answer to a question that you might say had been haunting them.

Mr. STEWART WALLACE (Composer): What does it sound like for a ghost to talk to a living person?

LYDEN: They met a musician named Lee Jung Hua (ph) who not only told them, he gave them a demonstration from traditional Chinese opera.

Mr. WALLACE: And he took his small gong, the chau li, and he played it. Gang-gang-gang-gang, gagang-gang-gang, like this. He then made this gesture. He turned his head away and pushed his hands like that.

LYDEN: You're pushing your hands out to your side.

Mr. WALLACE: Yeah, I'm pushing my hands away, and I'm turning my face. And when I saw that, I realized almost in an instant that every time he played a note, it was everything. He saw everything. He felt everything. He was not playing a part. He was playing the whole tradition.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: The question of how a ghost sounds and feels and moves and is brought back to life is essential to the opera, "The Bonesetter's Daughter," which premieres tonight at the San Francisco Opera. It's an opera that Wallace and Tan created over several years and many trips to rural China. Tan, of course, is known for her novels about Chinese-American life.

Here, the two of them were on a quest to bring Tan's novel and elements of her life to the stage. Wallace would write the music. Tan would write the libretto. But she'd never done it before, and it wasn't easy.

Ms. AMY TAN (Novelist): The key was really to cut out the words and let the music stand for the emotions because that's what opera is. It's music. It's performance. It's great voices. And the story was a framework in a way.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: "The Bonesetter's Daughter", the opera, begins with three characters emerging from a mist. One is a Chinese-American daughter, like Tan herself. The second is a mother, like hers, born in China; and the third is that ghost, that haunted and haunting ghost named Precious Auntie. The three female entities make their way through a fog and sing about the things they know to be true.

(Soundbite of opera, "The Bonesetter's Daughter")

LYDEN: The anguish, love, and interdependency of these three weave together to form their story. We don't know what they know that's true. Amy Tan didn't learn the shocking truth that her own grandmother committed suicide until she was a grown woman. In the early 1920s, Amy Tan's grandmother, a widow, made a visit to an island to see a business friend of the family's staying overnight.

Ms. TAN: And the husband came in, and he raped my grandmother. She then lost face. Everybody knew about this. Her brother kicked her out, and she had a baby as a result of that, and then she killed herself shortly after the baby was born.

LYDEN: But Amy Tan says she waited to kill herself on a significant and powerful date.

Ms. TAN: And in those days, when you killed yourself, you would come back as a ghost and often exact revenge. So it wasn't simply out of despair. It was definitely with the sense that you were going to come back with a different power.

LYDEN: The power of vengeance. In the opera, Amy Tan and Stewart Wallace had only to decide how Precious Auntie's rapist would meet his aunt.

Ms. TAN: It's a plot of his demise.

Mr. WALLACE: Right.

Ms. TAN: It had to be heck of a lot of fun.

Mr. WALLACE: Well, it was. And we're trying to think who's going to do it. We have Precious Auntie, the ghost. We have old LuLing who's watching. We have young LuLing. Who's going to make the murder? We landed on a side here that Precious Auntie was going to do it because Amy said it's very important that the ghost do it so that none of the living have to bear the emotional scars of actually having done it to him.

And then we sat around thinking, well, how's he going to get it? And we're talking very casually, and I said oh, you know? Maybe, Precious Auntie should just cut his d- off. And I was just joking. And Amy said, if we do that, nobody will ever forget it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TAN: Well, it's opera.

LYDEN: But it's not just opera. Precious Auntie is a ghost of protection, but she also turns on her own daughter, threatening to murder her with a dragon bone when the daughter declares that she will marry her mother's rapist.

The notion of a dagger at the throat comes from Amy Tan's life. When she was 15, her father and brother died within months of each other. When her mother lost a son and loving second husband, her world shattered. When Amy Tan then threatened to run away with a disastrous man, her mother unraveled.

Ms. TAN: And she held a cleaver to my throat. She pushed me into the room, locked the door, took this key, and her eyes were crazy. And she said I'm killing you first, and then I'm killing John, my brother, and then I'm killing myself, and we're all going to go to where they went. And I was so devoid of emotion, I just said, do it.

And suddenly, I felt this voice, it was not me, and I guess people would call it that split personality that happens in extreme trauma. But I felt this voice come up and just say, I want to live. I want to live. I want to live. And that's all I remembered.

LYDEN: When that scene is reinterpreted on the stage, it becomes clear that Precious Auntie would rather kill her daughter than see her go through life abused by the same man who abused her. As Amy Tan's fame grew, she's written "The Joy Luck Club," "The Kitchen God's Wife," as well as "The Bonesetter's Daughter" and other novels, her mother came to believe that she could redeem the past on the pages of her books.

She's not the only one, though, who found redemption through art. One of the opera stars is redeeming his past through his music. We heard a bit of his story last week before dress rehearsal.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HAO JIANG TIAN (Opera Star): My name is Hao Jiang Tian. And in this opera, "The Bonesetter's Daughter," and my character is Mr. Chane (ph)...

LYDEN: The villain.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAO: And he's a terrible, terrible guy. He's a coffin maker. He's a killer. He's a reaper, so I'm so lucky I've got chance to play this character.

LYDEN: I have to say, you seem like an awfully jolly person for someone who has to play evil incarnate.

Mr. HAO: Well, what can I do? And first of all, I'm a bass, you know? Bass? We don't play lovers. We only play older guys and the bad guys.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: Hao Jiang Tian has also found a way out of a past that was a nightmare, just like a character in an Amy Tan novel. When he was a boy during the Cultural Revolution, his father, an orchestra conductor, handed Tian his precious record collection and told his son to sell it to the recycling station. The boy gleefully carted away 200 records.

Mr. HAO: So at the recycling station, I was asked there to break them to pieces because they didn't take the whole records, you know? It took me about three or four hours to smash those records to small pieces.

LYDEN: Tian, who had resisted his musician parents' early efforts to give him a musical education, some years later, discovered that hidden in his father's gramophone, one precious LP remained. It was just three days before his parents would be sent to the countryside for reeducation. Tian's father played the record, giving his son the only music lesson he would ever receive from his stern father.

Mr. HAO: We started to play the record, and that was a Beethoven Symphony No. 6.

(Soundbite of Beethoven Symphony No. 6)

LYDEN: And then my father started to explain, you know, this music for me. And he said, well, this is the first movement. This the main theme. This little village, the nice weather, and the mountains, the river. And you know, storm came and then stopped. The birds are singing again. The people went out to dance. You know, I hated music.

But on my father's face, shocked me. And because my father was always serious and very tough. But at that moment, you know, my father's face became so tender, so beautiful. And so, I thought that, no matter what kind of music it was, it must be powerful because they've changed my father.

(Soundbite of Beethoven Symphony No. 6)

LYDEN: In making "The Bonesetter's Daughter," Amy Tan was also on a musical journey which would transform her understanding of a parent. A few months ago, she visited the island where her grandmother died and her mother was raised, vanquishing some ghosts of her own.

Ms. TAN: I saw the house where she lived, this last trip. And I saw the room, the actual room that she lived in and where she died. And I have this sense of a prison. This was the house where my mother grew up from the age of nine until she was married off to the second richest family on the island. She didn't have a voice, and she didn't have a mother to protect her. And she just did what they said and had a horrible marriage to an abusive man.

LYDEN: But the visit to that island and its unhappy legacy allowed Amy Tan to more fully understand the suffering endured by her mother and grandmother. So on stage, when the mother figure passes away, Stewart Wallace and Amy Tan gently and dramatically portray her death like this. Stewart Wallace sings.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: And the misunderstandings between mother and daughter also fled away. On the mother's death bed, she asks her daughter, Ruth, for forgiveness. She calls her Lootie. Opera star Jiang Chao (ph) sings that moment for us, the exchange of mother and daughter.

Ms. JIANG CHAO (ph) (Opera Star): At the end she go, Lootie, sorry, so sorry I hurt you. And I hope you can forget. And I sing, I've already forgotten, mama, mama. And I will always remember who you are, who I am, what is in our bones. And that's the moment that Ruth grows up.

LYDEN: "The Bonesetter's Daughter" makes it world premiere tonight at the San Francisco Opera. It's directed by Chen Shi-Zheng. with a libretto by Amy Tan, and music by Stewart Wallace. Our piece was produced by Kate Davidson.

LYDEN: Our parting words tonight come from Amy Tan's novel, "The Kitchen God's Wife." "You see what power is, holding someone else's fear in your hand and showing it to them."

That's All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

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