Prior to staging his most recent interpretation of the classic Kunqu opera The Peony Pavilion, world-renowned composer Tan Dun spoke with Maxwell K. Hearn, Director of Asia Department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, about his vision and journey to find "Beautiful China" through traditional opera. A transcript of their conversation follows:
Maxwell K. Hearn: It's a great privilege and pleasure to work with Tan Dun, and bring his extraordinary production of The Peony Pavilion to the Metropolitan Museum. I was very privileged to see this production first in Shanghai a little over a year ago, and I was delighted when I asked Tan Dun if he would like to bring this production to the Metropolitan Museum's Astor Court and he immediately agreed. I had no idea what that meant. It meant 18 musicians, actors, production team from China and an even larger number of lighting, sound, film and technical support group from this country transforming the garden court into a stage because it's one thing to sit in a court and see this production it's a completely different thing to film it with cameras. We have four cameras tonight that will be filming it and that will be live streamed tomorrow when this production opens to the public and it will also be archived on our website so that you will be able to see the whole production from perspectives even the live audience will not see because one of the four cameras is actually in chamber rooms looking out from the back.
This is all Tan Dun's creative energy. He scarcely needs an introduction but let me just say a few words about Tan Dun. He is an extraordinarily creative composer as well as conductor. He has really transformed world music by his amazing integration and blending of Western and Eastern traditional music, the blending of classical with contemporary musical form – all from a man who grew up in Hunan in a very provincial part of central China. One of his earliest experiences in music was the shamanistic ritual he witnessed as a young boy in where the ceremonies involved using water and rocks and other natural objects to create a musical backdrop to those rituals. He also, of course, experienced the Cultural Revolution. He lived through that working on a commune for part of that period. And it was during that period he learned how to play some of the traditional stringed instruments from the peasants that he worked alongside. Then, through an absolute fluke, there was a troupe of Beijing opera performers coming through and they had lost a good many of their members due to an accident and so he was recruited into that troupe. He found his way to Beijing ultimately where he studied at the Central Conservatory of Music. He played the viola there. In the 1980s, he came to America. He was a doctoral student at Columbia where he studied composition with Chou Wen-Chung, a Chinese-American composer. It was at that time that he became aware of John Cage, Phillip Glass and other experimental music composers in this country and really, gradually, developed his own style where he combined the musical groups he grew up with in Hunan with this classical training and his interest in experimental style led to these amazing creations which I think are well known to us all because of the use of unconventional instruments including pieces of paper and bowls full of water.
So, with that background he took his compositions around the world and has conducted and composed for some of the leading philharmonic orchestras in the world, including those in London, New York, Berlin, Munich, Milan and Paris. He also, of course, composed the score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In 2008, the Beijing Olympics used music he had composed for all of the award ceremonies. He was featured in the World Expo in Shanghai in 2010 and he has been honored with many prestigious awards including a Grammy and an Oscar. He won an award for Classical Composition in the Americas, the Composer award. So, it is a great honor and pleasure to welcome Tan Dun to the stage at the Metropolitan Museum.
Tan Dun: It's my honor; actually, Max is a very important Chinese scholar. I got to know him a few years ago on the other side of the city—the other Met [Metropolitan Opera].
MH: Ah, yes, in 2006 you premiered The First Emperor with Plácido Domingo in the cast.
TD: Yes, and at that time we spoke about Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China and I realized what an expert Max is and how much knowledge he has about Chinese art and Chinese history and everything about the house life and specifically, the gardens.
So from that first impression, maybe you didn't notice, but I was trying to analyze you.
MH: (joking) You never asked me to sing for you.
TD: I have been in the Met's Garden many times, but each time I had a different kind of feeling. I always get a strong feeling. I had a feeling this time that I had found something very interesting because every thing in this garden is a perfect copy—exactly, almost—of a garden in Suzhou, a city an hour from Shanghai. I spent some time in that original garden, which is almost exactly the same. But that garden was outside, [the Met's] garden is inside. It's very interesting: outside is inside and inside is outside. Very Chinese.
The only thing I felt, musically, I found it needs… I was in Suzhou a month ago preparing for this production and there were so many sounds of the water and the insects and birds. In the 1980s, that's what the Chinese workers listened to, the birds and the water in their gardens.
MH: Well, we had the waterfall, which you complained was too loud. The Chinese garden workers brought 24 goldfish from Suzhou, which we discovered they didn't like chlorinated water here in New York so we had to replace them. We did, actually, consider going up to Cornell where they have an ornithology department and had recorded bird songs to introduce bird songs into the garden. I think we better revisit that idea. We also had the idea of our own troupe of elderly Chinese gentlemen with their birdcages, but we couldn't find any. (laughter)
TD: What kind of politics is this with American fish living in a Chinese garden? (laughter) Actually, today, you will hear the sound of birds and water and crickets from a thousand miles away, from that original garden [in Suzhou]. So, it's kind of revealing, the different formats, the garden.
MH: I love that idea. The garden in Suzhou is called "The Garden of the Master of the Fishing Nets" [Wangshi Yuan] and one courtyard off the main garden. The main garden surrounds a pond and the summer pavilion is built out over the pond. Chen Congzhou, who is the wonderful garden architecture scholar, told me that it was the perfect stage for Chinese Kunqu opera and it allowed the audience to sit around the pond and the sound would bounce off the still pond water and the ladies could sit on the second floor out of sight of the male guests and still enjoy the performance.
Our garden courtyard is actually adjacent to that main garden. It is a dry courtyard except for a little pool of water, the cold spring [Lengquanting]. It was cold because it would come from deep in the ground and that made good tea water. That was the residence of Zhang Daqian's brother. Zhang Daqian is the great collector and connoisseur and many of his paintings are now at the Met. His brother had a pet tiger that lived in the garden courtyard. So, that's something else we could look at. (laughter)
TD: It's an amazing thing that in America there would be this kind of sophisticated Chinese art [Kunqu]. In China, there were not many theaters in the south unless they were owned by royal families or palaces. So, it became a very interesting tradition. People would come visit your garden and ask where your opera company was. Each garden had it's own opera company and usually guests want to come and see some of your repertoire or your version of The Peony Pavilion or something else.
MH: We have an exhibition surrounding the garden that is inspired by Tan Dun because his ability to use our garden as the site for an operatic performance reminded me that the garden plays many roles in China. We have paintings that show literary gatherings in the garden, but we haven't a single image of Kunqu or other opera being performed there but we have many literary references, of course, that talk about this. So, what we are doing is reintroducing an art form that was originally often performed within courtyards and within garden settings into its original setting. We're taking it out of the theater.