Journey of the Bonesetter's Daughter on WXXI-TV

Journey of the Bonesetter's Daughter on WXXI-TV

Sun, 05/08/2011 - 10:00pm

Photo: Mezzo-soprano Qian Yi in her dressing room

Credit: Courtesy of Monica Lam

This documentary gives a behind-the-scenes look at the celebrated production of The Bonesetter’s Daughter.

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 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.