NEW YORK — 'The First Emperor," which premièred at New York's Metropolitan Opera in December, evokes China in the third century BC with the thrum of stones on drums, the boom of a giant Chinese bell, and the rhythmic slap of hands on thighs. Its story centers on Qin Shi Huang, whose ambition won him an empire but cost the lives of a beloved daughter, a faithful general, and countless subjects.
Asia is no stranger to Western opera – think Giacomo Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" and "Turandot," or André Messager's "Madame Chrysanthème." Nor is it unprecedented for singers to enact the tragic fates of long-dead nobles. But in "The First Emperor," the music does not so much borrow from Asian sensitivity as breathes it, and the story speaks as much to recent history as to tales of yesteryear. The story is open to several interpretations.
Best known for his Oscar-winning score for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," composer Tan Dun studied music in China and the US and spent years researching ancient Chinese instruments and singing. As in previous work, his hallmark is the melding of traditions. As the orchestra strikes up, Peking opera performer Wu Hsing-Kuo skitters across the stage, soon to cede the spotlight to Plácido Domingo, who sings melodies constructed with Chinese timing and pentatonic scale. The words, however, are in English.
Although "The First Emperor," which runs through Jan. 25 at New York's Metropolitan Opera, has garnered mixed reviews, critics admire Mr. Dun's range. The Chinese elements, says F. Paul Driscoll, editor of Opera News, have "an authentic Chinese character. It's the difference between artificial vanilla flavor and real vanilla, and it gives the opera a weight and an integrity that sounds immediately different from the faux Orientalism of something like 'Turandot.' "
Of course, 19th-century audiences considered Puccini's creations equally authentic – but their knowledge was limited. "The creation of an Asian world on the opera stage," Mr. Driscoll says, "was roughly akin to the approximation we have in 1950s science fiction films of what outer space would be like."
In Puccini's day, too, composers created operas in mere months and could therefore use them for political commentary. Today the process takes years. The Met commissioned "The First Emperor" in 1996, and Dun worked years alongside director Zhang Yimou (best known for "Raise the Red Lantern"). Unlike most contemporary operas, however, this one has political resonances.
Throughout the three-hour performance, blocks of stone suspended on cables form a prison, a wall, and palace steps inscribed with Chinese characters. Repeatedly, a chorus of slaves intones, "When will our suffering end?/ When water is heavier than sand/ Wide and rich is our land, nourished by blood and hope."
These are all references to Emperor Qin – his conquests, his establishment of a single writing system, and his construction of the Great Wall to keep out barbarians. Qin, Mr. Domingo sings, also burned books and banned scholars to stifle dissent and, as bass Tian Hao Jiang's General Wang intones, he created an army of terra-cotta soldiers to secure him eternal power.
The parallels with Mao are unmistakable: He erected a wall of isolation to keep out capitalism, simplified Chinese writing, and launched a Cultural Revolution in the 1960s that destroyed scholarly and artistic treasures.
The Cultural Revolution also exiled intellectuals and urban teenagers to the countryside, among them Dun, Mr. Zhang, Mr. Tian, and award-winning novelist Ha Jin, who coauthored the libretto with Dun.
The libretto could be read as a commentary on Mao, but opera is a spectacle and, as Mr. Ha discovered, spectacle itself creates its own meanings. While his libretto originally stressed the conflict between the individual and the state, the final production, he says, presents "a kind of grand, august, or majestic vision of China" that he fears will smack of propaganda if, as rumored, the opera travels to Beijing.
Mr. Tian sees it differently. His role gave him "a chance to turn my eyes to Chinese history," an interest denied him by the Cultural Revolution. Yes, he concludes, "Qin united China with blood, but that happened everywhere in the world." If anything, he would change Domingo's stage directions to stress the power of his position over his suffering.
For Driscoll, the opera's message is purely aesthetic. "In Dun's music, silence is a full balance to sound," Driscoll says. "It's not just the strike of the bell; it's the reverberation and the vocal line combined with the tolling. For lack of a better word, it seems more allied to nature." Henceforth, Driscoll will listen to Puccini with an ear to detecting the Asian sensitivity to nature that Dun expresses and European composers admired to the point of emulation.