An Operatic Dream, Brought to Life

Small but determined, the Chinese Heritage Foundation set out to commission a new opera based on a classic novel. Here's how they pulled it off.

Dream of the Red Chamber may not ring any bells for most Americans, but in China, the epic novel is as well known as War and Peace is in the West.

The 18th century masterpiece, which clocks in at more than 2,400 pages, tracks the downfall of an aristocratic family during the Qing Dynasty. Cao Xueqin’s novel has inspired numerous Chinese operas, films, and two television series. “The only thing it hadn’t been made into was a Western-style opera,” said Pearl Bergad, executive director of the Chinese Heritage Foundation, a fund of The Minneapolis Foundation.

Well, why not?

That’s a question that Bergad found herself asking a friend one day over lunch some years ago. The idea took root, and when she mentioned it to Ming Li Tchou, founder of the Chinese Heritage Foundation, they realized they’d hit on a project perfectly aligned with the group’s mission.

That idea came to fruition last September with the San Francisco Opera’s world premiere of Dream of the Red Chamber, an English-language opera that the Chinese Heritage Foundation helped develop, and for which it contributed the commissioning fee.

If persuading a major opera company to develop a brand-new, full-length production sounds like an unlikely achievement for a small foundation in Minnesota, that’s because it was. “Usually, you don’t go to an opera company and tell them what to do,” Bergad said. “It’s not common for an outside group to come in and say, ‘Hey! We have a good idea. Want to do this opera?’”

That didn’t stop the Chinese Heritage Foundation. Founded in 2004 by members of the Chinese community in Minneapolis-Saint Paul, the group promotes Chinese history and culture through grants to film festivals, children’s theater, and other arts projects in the Twin Cities and beyond. Although it had never commissioned an opera, Bergad and Tchou became convinced that Dream of the Red Chamber was an ideal project for them to tackle.

“It’s a great way to use a universal story to convey Chinese perspectives to a worldwide audience,” Bergad said.

They lucked out early on when Kevin Smith, who was then getting ready to retire as president and CEO of the Minnesota Opera, agreed to take the project under his wing. Smith had the connections and know-how to get the opera off the ground, Bergad said. “For him to approach a company like the San Francisco Opera was very fortunate for us. It gave us a lot of credibility.”

Once the San Francisco Opera signed on, they assembled what became, Bergad said, “an ideal team” to bring the novel to life on stage, including MacArthur-winning composer Bright Sheng, Tony-winning playwright David Henry Hwang, director Stan Lai, and Oscar-winning designer Tim Yip.

Adapting Dream of the Red Chamber into a two-act opera required a massive simplification of the novel’s plot, with hundreds of characters cut and many narrative elements jettisoned. The story that emerged focuses on a love triangle between the young scion of a wealthy family, his fragile and poetic orphaned cousin, and a beautiful heiress who comes between them.

“That love triangle is very much a part of the Chinese consciousness,” Bergad said. Just as generations of Western women have seen themselves as Lizzie or Jane in Pride and Prejudice, “Everybody identifies with one or other of the heroines.”

When Bergad finally saw the opera—an experience that she shared with 150 Chinese Heritage Foundation donors and friends who gathered in San Francisco for opening night—it was “a bit overwhelming,” she said. “I don’t think the enormity of the project really hit me until the world premiere.” What she remembers most about that night is not a specific singer or costume or passage of music, but the opera as a whole. “To tell this story to an audience that knew nothing about it, to grab their hearts, to show them a visual spectacle and have them hear this music for the first time… This is what grand opera is about.”

Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera