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INCREDIBLE JOURNEY. Journey of The Bonesetterís Daughter, a documentary following the creation of an opera based on author Amy Tanís bestselling novel, The Bonesetterís Daughter, airs May 13 on Oregon Public Broadcasting. Pictured are mezzo-sopranos Zheng Cao and Ning Liang singing a moving duet, the operaís last scene, about memory and loss and "never forgetting what is in our bones." (Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Opera)
From The Asian Reporter, V21, #09 (May 2, 2011), page 20.
The incredible journey of The Bonesetterís Daughter
Journey of The Bonesetterís Daughter
Directed by David Petersen
Produced by Monica Lam & Fawn Ring
Distributed by the Independent Television Service
Airing Friday, May 13 on Oregon Public Broadcasting
By Josephine Bridges
The Asian Reporter
I didnít know my grandmotherís real name until the day my mother died," confides Amy Tan, author of the novel The Bonesetterís Daughter and librettist for the opera of the same name. "My grandmother was raped by a man who was well-to-do, and she had nowhere else to go, she had lost face, and she had to join this manís household because she was now pregnant. She found the only way she could gain her power was to kill herself."
Journey of The Bonesetterís Daughter is the story of how more than 600 people collaborated to craft a magnificent achievement from its roots in outrage.
At first, Amy Tan wasnít enthusiastic about the idea of an opera based on her novel ó "Why do they always feel that a form thatís created now has to turn into another form?" she wonders out loud ó but her friend, composer Stewart Wallace, wrote her a piece of music based on her novelís opening lines, "These are the things I know are true," set for an a cappella trio.
"I didnít know there were three women in the book," Wallace says. When he couldnít get it out of his mind, he told Tan, "I not only know that this has to be an opera, I know how to do it."
While it wasnít long before Wallace began to wonder if heíd bitten off more than he could chew, he also knew why it had to be done. "We have a Chinese percussion section, opera singers, many of whom were born in China, and Chinese acrobats. There would never be an opportunity in China to work together, so to bring all those elements together Ö itís a monumental undertaking."
Stage director Chen Shi-Zheng was born and raised in China during the Cultural Revolution and studied Chinese opera at Hunan Art School. He now works internationally as a stage and film director. His 19-hour production of the traditional Chinese opera The Peony Pavilion was acclaimed as one of the most important theatrical events of the 20th century, but, judging from the look on his face as opening night nears and the tension rises, even that didnít prepare him for the challenge of The Bonesetterís Daughter.
Filmmakers Monica Lam and David Petersen travelled to China with Tan and Wallace, and the Chinese scenes ó from Tanís first visit to the room where her grandmother died to Wallaceís sing-a-long with a group of Chinese girls who politely correct his pronunciation ó are breathtaking. It is also in China that Wallace asks a Beijing Opera percussionist, "What does it sound like for a ghost to speak to a living person?" The musical answer makes it clear to Wallace that Chinese percussionists must be a part of the opera, and marks the beginning of an extraordinary friendship between two men who "donít speak a word of each otherís language."
Comic relief is rare and welcome in this stressful production: when "you motherís past" appears in the latest script, singers Qian Yi and Zheng Cao giggle over whether this is one more in the series of constant changes that plague the production, or just a typo.
But allís well that ends well. The Bonesetterís Daughter is described in The New York Times as "ambitious and culturally sensitive new American opera." Six years in the making, with more than 600 cast and crew, it was performed seven times.
"I imagine my grandmother saying, ĎI didnít want to make you weaker, I wanted to make you stronger. Donít think of killing yourself; youíre in a different world. I didnít have a voice, but you can have a voice,í" says Tan. "So I am the writer. I am the granddaughter with the voice."
Journey of The Bonesetterís Daughter airs at 11:00pm on Friday, May 13 on Oregon Public Broadcasting with a repeat scheduled for May 14 at 4:00am. To learn more, call (503) 293-1982, or visit <www.opb.org> or <www.outlierfilms.com>.