In four scenes, instead of the original 55, Tan's The Peony Pavilion tells the classic story of the lovesick maiden Du Liniang and the scholar Liu Mengmei. Du and Liu first meet in a dream, and when Du awakens without her love she falls ill and dies from loneliness. She leaves behind a self-portrait, which Liu uses to resurrect his ghostly wife. Tan used only a few instruments—the bamboo flute, lute, the guqin (zither) and percussion—as well as the sounds of water for an elegant, sparse interpretation of the Chinese classic written by Tang Xianzu (1550-1616).
Tan performed his arrangement for two years in a garden in Suzhou, a picturesque town outside the city of Shanghai, where it was seen by Maxwell Hearn, Asian Art Curator for New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Hearn invited Tan to bring the performance for a special showing in New York City.
"The one challenge we have is that the garden is very small and the fire code prevents us from having more than 50 individuals in the garden as an audience, because of the number of people who are in the performance itself," said Hearn.
Zhang Ran, who played the maiden Du Liniang, said adapting the opera to the gallery space was difficult.
"We are much closer to the audience in [the New York Met's] Astor Court. Each of our movements and expressions on our faces and in our eyes is closely observed by the audience, which is a greater challenge for us," she told Beijing Review.