The Emperor's New Clothes:
A Review of Tan Dun's The First Emperor

by Tony Phillips

It’s been a season of firsts for the Met — from plastering their sopranos across bus shelters to beaming their operas into the local multiplex — but their latest offering — Tan Dun’s The First Emperor — proves sometimes first is not always best.

The world premiere of this two-act opera takes us behind the screens at the royal court of Qin Shi Huang, the first leader of a united China. Better known today as the ruler who built China’s Great Wall and left all those terra cotta soldiers in his wake, Qin is also survived by a pretty horrible rep. The tyrant’s legendary brutality isn’t quite explicated here as the story follows his quest to come up with a catchy pop ditty that will unify his country making him less blood-thirsty despot and more bitchy Simon Cowell. Still, he’s fleshed out fully by Spain’s renowned tenor Placido Domingo, who is-astonishingly-creating his first original role here since his 1968 Met debut.

Things begin promisingly enough when Taipei native Wu Hsing-Kuo opens the opera as the Yin-Yang Master performing a traditional chant before the court and giving the audience a glimpse of time-honored Peking Opera. One hopes the evening will continue to proceed with such far-flung exoticism, but it would seem like the opera’s composer, Tan Dun, like The First Emperor himself, doesn’t find these native Chinese harmonies pleasing and seeks a new sound to unify his people. Big daddy Qin doesn’t have to look far as he taps his childhood friend to do the honors, and neither does Dun, for that matter, as he shoehorns the ancient tale into a traditional Italian lyric structure that he’s absorbed through compulsive Met attendance ever since fleeing China’s Cultural Revolution and taking up in New York. Certainly every opera about China needn’t be performed in high pancake. Philip Glass’ Nixon in China is a fantastic opera that’s about as far away from Peking as one can get, but at least that tale of China’s last emperor doesn’t approach the East by trying to mix in equal parts West. It’s not a winning recipe.

Of course, opera being opera, Qin’s recipe for a new national anthem doesn’t fare so well either. First off, there’s his approach. Instead of asking nicely for a song, he sends his general to destroy poor Gai Jianli’s village and brings his reluctant hit-maker back to court as a prisoner. Before things wind down three hours later, the Emperor will have lost his daughter, his general and even his own personal Diane Warren, who bites off his own tongue and spits it at the emperor during his inauguration. And then there’s that anthem, which is unfurled after most of the court lies bleeding at the emperor’s feet and, well, let’s just say it’s not the kind of number Qin had in mind. As librettos go, this isn’t bad. Ha Jin, author of War Trash, shares writing credit with Dun himself and the two tell their story in a straight-forward, linear (read: Western) fashion. Still, even though the opera is sung mostly in English, most of the audience left the Met Titles on their seatbacks glowing for the entire performance.

And though Dun’s watering down of traditional Chinese music was a bit of a let down, there’s still enough exotic percussion from the pit to keep things interesting, but where this production truly loses its way is in the direction. I went into this performance fresh off director Zhang Yimou’s latest cinematic triumph Curse of the Golden Flower, so I was expecting gorgeous set design, complex staging and an Empress on par with Gong Li. Unfortunately, The First Emperor contains none of these things and it’s hard to figure out where Yimou went astray. The idea that film directors should steer clear of opera certainly holds true conversely — I mean, has anyone sat all the way through a Franco Zeffirelli flick lately? — but anyone who took in Yimou’s epic staging of Puccini’s Turandot either in the Forbidden City itself or as documented in Alan Miller’s Turandot Project, or even his deft translation of his 1991 film Raise the Red Lantern into a stunning dance for The National Ballet of China, could hardly argue this point convincingly.

And yet Yimou stumbles, big time. First of all, there’s The Great Wall itself, with its individual blocks rising and falling on hundreds of visible tethers so that the set resembles nothing so much as the inside of a piano. It’s not until act two, when the blocks begin moving on-stage, that one realizes with slowly dawning horror that Fan Yue’s set is actually one giant puppet. After another film director’s disappointing Madama Butterfly this season, with its Bunraku baby doubling for Cho-Cho San’s love child, one would think we’d had enough with the facacta puppets already! But to contrast this heaving wall, Yimou stages everything else either on the edge of the stage, sometimes even in front of the curtain, or in traditional choral staging with his impressive, mostly Chinese cast flanked along the great wall looking like The Gay Men’s Chorus live at Budokan. Perhaps it’s necessary to flatten out of the deep cinematic gaze under the proscenium arch, and maybe that’s what Yimou is railing against. Minghella also struggled with the dimensions of the opera house by employing those tacky motel mirrors on the ceiling for his Butterfly. Perhaps it’s a no-win situation.

But in The First Emperor, by placing most of the opera’s action inside a giant piano, Yimou’s at least got the grand part down. Now all he needs is some scena and he’s got himself a show.