Interesting article in the International Herald Tribune about "The First Emperor", a grandiose, US$2 million opera at the New York Metropolitan Opera about China’s founding emperor Qin Shihuang. It was written by Chinese-American composer Tan Dun, featured icons Zhang Yimou and Ha Jin among its creative team and stars none other than Placido Domingo in the title role. (Yes, that Placido Domingo, second of the Three Tenors). A sample:
Indeed the opera, a co-production of the Metropolitan Opera and the Los Angeles Opera, contained so many Chinese elements that People’s Daily proudly proclaimed it "the first China-made opera to be presented at the prestigious Metropolitan Opera House."
Eager to experience what many viewed as a symbol of their nation’s cultural arrival, Beijing’s better-heeled music lovers flew to New York for opening night Dec. 21, sending back word of a stunning production, a capacity house and multiple ovations. Chinese newspapers were splashed with photos of Domingo dressed in imperial robes. And then, like rain on a parade, came news of the reviews from New York’s make-it-or-break-it critical establishment.
"An enormous disappointment," declared The New York Times of the score, adding that the vocal writing was "ill-conceived" and gave "soaring melody a bad name." The New Yorker damned it all as "musical kitsch." Predictable comparisons to Puccini, whose Chinese-inspired "Turandot" is a standard of the Western opera repertoire, appeared in almost every review.
As the tide of negative, even nasty, reviews washed into Beijing, the excitement turned to confusion and consternation. The English language China Daily requested that Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times classical music critic "elaborate on his criticisms." It then ran excerpts from his second, similarly unflattering evaluation of the opera alongside interviews with Tan Dun and other members of the creative team, concluding, "Whatever people say about this opera, it is a historical milestone in cultural coalescence."