'Crouching Tiger' Composer Ready for Met
By Martin Steinberg
From SFGate.com - Tuesday, December 19, 2006
He collected folk songs in villages in his native China, then planted rice during the Cultural Revolution. Later, he played music on the streets of New York to buy food.
Now, composer Tan Dun is making his Metropolitan Opera debut.
"The First Emperor," starring Placido Domingo in the title role of a production with a reported cost of up to $3 million, has its world premiere Thursday night — on stage and in cyberspace.
No stranger to success, Tan won an Oscar in 2001 for the music for the martial arts fantasy "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." His other compositions include "The Map," a cello concerto written for Yo-Yo Ma; and the score for the 2002 movie "Hero," with violin solos by Itzhak Perlman.
Still, "The First Emperor" — the story of betrayal involving a conqueror, his daughter and a court composer two millennia ago — should be a great leap forward for the 49-year-old Tan, who will conduct all nine performances through Jan. 25.
After a long day of conducting the dress rehearsal Monday for the three-hour opera, Tan spoke with The Associated Press.
AP: Did you ever think while growing up in Hunan province that you would be here?
Tan: No. It's a huge distance. I just cannot imagine. Thirty years ago, you know, I was planting the rice. ... It's a dream. To me, this distance is not just 30 years. It just seems like a few hundred years. ... It's not just distance. ... I came from a completely different tradition and now I end up with another tradition. From this tradition I take it back, to let the two traditions meet — to embrace.
AP: So you feel like Marco Polo?
Tan: Upside-down Marco Polo.
AP: How did you get involved in music?
Tan: I was growing up in my grandma's village. My grandma was a vegetable farmer. So basically all the farmers and people always are gathering together in the evening for ritual opera, for chanting for funeral(s) or wedding(s). My childhood life I remember every night is musical activities — lessons that go to stories, through chantings. ...
AP: How did you get to New York?
Tan: I always wanted to get into the Hunan Opera but I was not allowed because at that time it was the Cultural Revolution. Mao Zedong (said of high school and college graduates): "They're all poisoned and you have to (be) re-educated by farmers, workers, to teach you how to plant the rice, how to feed pigs, how to clean the bathroom. Then your spirit is clean. Otherwise you would be just poisoned by all this academic knowledge." So before I was re-educated, of course I wasn't allowed to be a musician. ... That's why I planted rice. ... I also cooked for 200 people. Meanwhile, my real re-education was I got a chance to collect all this dialect and folk songs. I start to organize the local farmers to play the old ghost operas, which were ritualistic music. ... I teach them how to write, how to read. And they teach me all this old music.
AP: You then applied for the Beijing conservatory?
Tan: They thought I could be a wonderful pianist, a wonderful violinist, or a wonderful composer. I said I am a wonderful composer but I can't play piano but I can play fiddle. ... They said can you fiddle some Mozart or some Beethoven? I said I even don't know who is Mozart, who is Beethoven. ... Then he said, what could you do for us? I said I can do improvising. I can sing 500 folk songs. I can show you all my research on oldest music, my collections for all those disappearing old stuff. ...
I ... stayed about eight years in the conservatory to learn all the tradition of Western music because ... all our teachers were graduates of the Moscow Conservatory. ... After that, the country opened and I started to be influence(d) by Western avant-garde — John Cage, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Elliott Carter, ... (Toru) Takemitsu. I start to be very hungry for new music. ... So I applied for Columbia University.
AP: While at Columbia, you used to fiddle on the streets of New York to get money?
Tan: Yeah. ... My scholarship just covered tuition. I didn't have any money for my living expenses, even the rent, the food.
AP: What about the politics of "The First Emperor" story? On the one hand Qin Shi Huang was a brutal autocrat who conquered warring fiefdoms. On the other, he had great economic, social and artistic accomplishments. The libretto depicts him searching for a musical anthem to unite the hearts of the people. Are you trying to say something politically?
Tan: No. I'm interested in putting an artist and a politician together — to have a contrast of their mind. ... Qin Shi Huang (was) pretty much like Mao Zedong. ... He was great. He unified China. He made the language, made the measuring system, made the currency. ... But on the other hand, imagine how many other kingdoms' tribes he wiped out, how many other languages he destroyed, and the culture and books burned by him. ...
AP: During the decade the opera has been in the works, you have done much research on the music of Qin's time. With your percussive music, were you trying to re-create what he may have heard?
Tan: It's kind of a dream processing.
AP: What about your dream with Placido Domingo? You have said you had long dreamed of writing an opera for him. And this is his first world premiere at the Met in his 38 years with the company.
Tan: When I was a student at Columbia I ... (saw) every single opera of his and always said: ... "If in my lifetime someday I could work with him, write for him, then it's nice. It's the word from God, it's wonderful." Of course I always say ... it's too high to dream it.
AP: So here it is?
Tan: It's wonderful feeling when you see the dream become real. Especially to (a) composer, every piece is a dream. You always start from zero. You imagine what kind of sound, timing, space. You imagine the sounds of opera. But this dream is more specific. I had a lot of dreams. I had (a) dream once when I was little, if I could work with Yo-Yo Ma! And it became true. And once I thought, if I could have a chance to write something for Itzhak Perlman, and I did! So now it's Domingo. I felt on the one hand I learned so much from them. ... On the other hand I felt like a makeup artist, like a tailor, to make them more beautiful in my way. It seems like they enjoy it. They feel they are more beautiful in a certain way, in my way.