Sunday, May 8 at 10 p.m. – Journey of the Bonesetter's Daughter
(Rochester, NY) – An ambitious, cross-cultural tour de force brings together artists from China and the U.S in Journey of the Bonesetter's Daughter on Sunday, May 8 at 10 p.m. on WXXI-TV/HD (DT21.1/cable 1011 and 11). This documentary gives a behind-the-scences look at the Opera’s celebrated production of The Bonesetter’s Daughter, composed by Stewart Wallace with a libretto by Amy Tan, and based on her bestselling book of the same name. The opera tells a deeply moving story about the difficult but unbreakable bond between mothers and daughters inspired by Tan’s own family history.
Tan’s libretto draws heavily on the tragic suicide of Tan’s maternal grandmother, and explores the impact of the trauma on successive generations. “My grandmother was somebody who was forced into a subservient position,” Tan says. “She was raped, and the only way she could gain her power was to kill herself.” The film follows Tan as she explores her past, traveling with her half sisters to the home in China where her grandmother lived and died. As the opera production is mounted, Tan grapples with how best to capture and preserve the emotional truth of her family story in the drama unfolding on stage.
As in her earlier novels The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God’s Wife, author Tan uses elements of her own life in The Bonesetter’s Daughter to explore the immigrant experience and the ways in which both love and history can be lost in translation. The opera opens at a birthday party in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Ruth (Zheng Cao), a young Chinese-American woman, has organized the celebration for her aging mother, LuLing (Ning Liang). But the party disintegrates when LuLing launches into a delusional tirade, an early sign of her Alzheimer’s disease. LuLing’s illness and the revelation that she has guarded family secrets since childhood prompt Ruth to begin a journey of discovery into her mother and grandmother’s past.
The making of the opera spans two continents and artistic traditions — classical Western opera and traditional Chinese opera — and the film chronicles the extraordinary challenges of creating an ambitious new work of art. Tan’s collaborators, American composer Stewart Wallace (Harvey Milk), and Chinese opera director Chen Shi-Zheng (Peony Pavilion), both bring their forcefully contemporary sensibilities to the production. The film follows Wallace as he travels to China to research its musical traditions. “I wanted to write the opera in my own voice, but to make it feel like China,” Wallace says. “That was an easy thing to say; it was a harder problem to crack.” Wallace integrates music written for traditional Chinese instruments into his score, but also brings some of China’s best musicians to the San Francisco Opera to play alongside its full Western orchestra.
Chen Shi-Zheng, who immigrated to the United States from China as a young man, brings to the staging of The Bonesetter’s Daughter a blend of traditional and contemporary influences. “I don’t want this to be a Chinatown parade,” Chen says. “I’m very interested in a new form of opera — a new American opera.” Under his direction, Chinese acrobats tumble across the stage while abstract video projections create an ever-shifting visual backdrop for the unfolding drama. The Chinese and Western musicians collaborate despite their vastly different musical training. Tensions rise during daily rehearsals involving hundreds of singers, orchestra musicians, and backstage personnel, as changes are made until moments before the curtain rises.
Journey of the Bonesetter's Daughter shows the power of art to engage, inspire, and transform. For the opera’s talented and diverse creators, the collaboration tests cultural boundaries and takes enormous artistic risks to define anew both Western and Eastern operatic form. For Tan, the opera allows her to give voice to her grandmother’s sacrifice, heal the trauma that so profoundly affected her mother, and deepen the complicated bond shared among these three generations of women.
Photo: Mezzo-soprano Qian Yi in her dressing room
Credit: Courtesy of Monica Lam
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