Responses to the Opera Premiere, 2016

Media Responses to the Opera

Even before its opening, the opera attracted world-wide press attention. On Sept. 8, 2016, the Guardian published an article which talks about the processes of producing a work of art based on a Chinese novel which will speak to American audiences.  (Earlier this year. the Guardian published an article by Michael Wood which lamented the fact that the novel is so little known in the west. The article is an appreciation of the novel itself, and of David Hawkes’ translation.)  Also on Sept. 8, the San Francisco radio station KQED published an online article which talked about the intersections between Chinese and western operatic forms, and the choice made by the San Francisco Opera for an all-Asian cast. On Sept.10, the day of the opening, the New York Times published an article, which features Bright Sheng speculating on how those who have long known and loved the novel might react to the opera.  Also on the day it opened, Opera World published notice of the production, which contains information on the Minnesota genesis of the project.

The San Francisco Chronicle has published a number of articles on the opera. This article by Carolyne Zinko in the Chronicle talks about the uses of color in costuming in the opera. This article, also by Zinko, talks about the buzz that the opera has created. Both articles were published in August.  In late August, the San Francisco Voice published a detailed article previewing the opera.

In an essay published in late September, Nick Frisch (himself a translator) provides a sensitive discussion of the perils and payoffs of translating the opera into English, and into a dramatic form which is substantially different from Chinese opera.  It is not simply that the musical forms are quite different: the mode of presentation is radically different. For example, a Chinese opera would not attempt to tell the whole story of the novel. It would rather present highlights–such as Daiyu burying flowers. This is possible because Chinese audiences would have known the plot of the novel. This difference is productive to think about as we think about translation from one language to another, one culture to another, and one genre to another.

The Economist published a short piece on Sept. 14 which talked about the transformation of the novel into an opera.

Just before the opening, New China TV did a short piece on the opera, in English. The piece includes video clips from the dress rehearsal.  Bright Sheng speaks about his vision for the opera.

Reviews of the Opera

Reviews of the opera will be posted as they become available. If you know of reviews that have not been posted, please post them in the “Comments” section below and we’ll add them to the website. These reviews are of the San Francisco production (September, 2016). Reviews and press notices of the Hong Kong production are available here.

The San Jose Mercury called the opera “enchanting” (Sept.11, 2016). SFGate found the second act to be more compelling than the first (Sept.11, 2016). The San Francisco Examiner found the opera to be “lush” and “satisfying.” Opera Tattler found the sets to be appealing, but had some criticisms of the libretto.  The Los Angeles Times admired the ambition of the opera, but finds that in some places it falls short. Minnpost provided a glowing review of the opera, with a full recounting of its Minnesota connections. The Wall Street Journal praised some gripping musical moments, the sets, and the choreography.  The China Daily provided an enthusiastic review, and suggested that the opera might be presented in Beijing. Opera Today characterized Sheng as an “able” composer, and particularly liked the work of tenor Shi Yijie as Baoyu. The Vacaville Reporter commented on the extensive collaboration with Asian artists and arts organizations (the opera was co-produced by the Hong Kong Arts Festival). It was one of several articles to compare the opera with the adaptation of Amy Tan’s novel The Bonesetter’s Daughter, also produced by the San Francisco Opera.  The Guardian review has extensive quotations from both Bright Sheng and David Henry Hwang.

The Guangming Ribao (Guangming Daily), a Shanghai newspaper, published two pieces on the opera: one of which is an op-ed which heralded the importance of the English-language version of the opera as a step toward introducing the novel Dream of the Red Chamber to a global audience, and the other is a review. An English translation of the op-ed piece is available here. The Global Times provided a report on the opera, featuring interviews with Bright Sheng and PearlBergad. Women of China, a publication of the All China Women’s Federation, provided a short notice on the opera on September 14, 2016.

The English language version of CCTV, a Chinese television station, provided a glowing assessment of the opera and the way it made opera-goers more interested in Chinese culture in general, and the novel in particular.

Opera News calls the production “impossible and necessary” and describes Sheng’s score as “dripping with immoderation.”   Lisa Tyler Renaud wrote a thoughtful appreciation of the opera in her blog Scene4. Although she had some specific criticisms of the libretto, and of the fact that it was clear that the singers had been trained in different singing traditions, she commented on the “sublime moments” of the opera, and concluded by saying. “With this incarnation of Dream of the Red Chamber, San Francisco Opera and the creative collaborative artists have made a timely contribution to both our local and international communities.” Charles Kruger in Theaterstorm praises Bright Sheng’s lush orchestration but laments that the plot line of the original novel has been flattened out.

Operacritic has compiled a list of reviews of the 2016 production.


Video Highlights from the Opera, 1

The San Francisco Opera has provided a series of highlight videos from the opera, which will be posted on this page and subsequent pages.

The first video shows Baoyu singing to Daiyu, in act 1, scene 2.  The aria he is singing is a poem he is offering Daiyu in exchange for her teaching him how to play the qin.

These are the words to the aria:

I found this flower
Planted by the wall.
This flower Whose leaves are wilting.
Sweet flower You make this
A beautiful place.
Let me sprinkle morning dew
Onto your soft petals.

Video Highlights from the Opera, 2

This duet, sung by Baoyu and Daiyu in Act 1, scene 2, follows Baoyu’s aria in the last video.

In this aria they sing of how they wish to build a world built not on riches, but on music. The aria ends:

Together we sing
That beauty
Can transform the world.

At the end of the aria, we see Lady Wang, Baoyu’s mother, cross the stage. She has already decided that Baoyu should marry Baochai;  she is distressed by what she hears. Baoyu and Daiyu do not see her.

Video Highlights from the Opera, 3

In this aria, Princess Jia, on a rare visit home to the Jia family, laments her position and expresses her ansxiety about the future. The aria occurs near the end of Act 1.

The words that Princess Jia sings are:

No one understands
The weight that I carry
The burden of our survival
Falls on my shoulders.
I hang on to my position,
As on the ledge of a mountain,
By the tips of my fingers,
I fear, I cannot hold on.

Video Highlights from the Opera, 4

In this aria, Baochai sings:

A woman’s only chance for happiness
Is to marry well.
But happiness should come from the heart.
As a dutiful daughter
Such matters
Are not for me to decide.



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Dream of the Red Chamber Copyright © by Ann Waltner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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