Dream of the Red Chamber is a long, sprawling novel: 1311 pages in the original Chinese, and 2480 pages in the English translation by David Hawkes. Cao Xueqin wrote in exquisite details about everything: everyone’s innermost thoughts, the fantastic clothes that they wear, the furniture in the rooms, the flowers in the gardens, the foods they eat, etc. And by everyone I mean everyone, from the main characters to their numerous servants and maids, the cooks in the kitchen and the stream of visitors who come through. Recently there have been two tv series, produced in Mainland China, that claim to be faithful reproductions of everything described in the novel. The first series (1983) took up 36 DVDs and the second (2010) 50!
So to reduce this volume of material to a 3-hour opera has been a huge challenge. Fortunately for us Bright Sheng and David Henry Hwang, as co-librettists, have developed a script that is tightly packed and dramatically fast-moving. Based on this script David Henry Hwang has written a libretto (the lyrics) that Bright has been setting to music. He hopes to finish by the end of this summer.
To get started, let’s take a quick look at Chapter 1 in the novel. The chapter begins with a letter from author Cao Xueqin to the reader in which he explains the background of the book.
Long ago, when the goddess Nu-wa was repairing the sky, she melted down a great quantity of rock and stone, on the Incredible Crags of the Great Fable Mountains, and then moulded the amalgam into 36,501 blocks, each measuring 72’ x 144’ (that is the size of a double lot in Minneapolis). She wound up using a total of 36,500 of them in her repairs, and abandoned the remaining block at the foot of the Greensickness Peak.
Now this block of stone, after having undergone the melting and moulding by the goddess, had developed magical powers. It/he could walk, grow or shrink in size at will. When he saw that he had been left behind, he was filled with shame and resentment, and spent his days wandering in sorrow and lamentation.
One day he wandered into the palace of the fairy Disenchantment, and by the banks of the Magic River he came upon the frail Crimson Pearl Flower. He fell in love immediately and proceeded to water the flower everyday with the sweet morning dew. He did this for 3,000 years! Since Crimson Pearl was originally composed of the purest cosmic substance and therefore already half divine, and now thanks to the vitalizing effect of the sweet dew, she was able to shed her vegetable shape and assume the form of a girl. She was extremely grateful to the stone and began to wonder how she could repay him.
In the meantime the stone had been noticing the opulence and grandeur and passion of earthly human life below; and began begging a Buddhist monk, whom he had met, to send him down to earth to experience human life and emotions. Crimson Pearl thought that if she could go along, she would repay the stone’s kindness to her with a lifetime’s worth of tears. The monk tried to discourage these two from this absurd, romantic notion, but in the end reluctantly agreed and sent them both down to earth, as part of a group of amorous young souls, to take part in the great illusion of human life.
The stone shrank himself and slipped into the mouth of a handsome baby boy being born into a wealthy, aristocratic family. The author Cao Xueqin specifically asked that you, the reader, suspend your disbelief that this could happen! The baby’s parents were overjoyed with his arrival and, noticing the jade, proceeded to call him BaoYu, which means Precious Jade. And at the same time Crimson Pearl was born into a poor branch of this wealthy family as DaiYu, first cousin to BaoYu.
Now I am going to show you a genealogy chart of this wealthy family (chart). Please note that only 7 names are highlighted here. Everyone else is ghosted. They are the 7 principals who will appear in our opera. It is therefore very important that you become familiar with all of them.
A word about Chinese names: the last name comes first, and is then followed by the given name. The last name of this wealthy family is Jia. At the head of the family is the matriarch Grandma Jia. She has one son and one daughter. The son is married to Lady Wang and together they have two children (the only ones that concern us here): a daughter who became a concubine to the Emperor and has been elevated to the status of a princess: Princess Jia. In addition Lady Wang and her husband have a son BaoYu. He is of course the stone whom we met earlier and is now incarnated as a human. Throughout his growing up his well being is dependent on having the jade piece with him, and he has the peculiar habit of preferring women to men. Indulged by Grandma Jia, he is allowed to spend all his time in her Red Chamber, in the company of beautiful women.
The daughter of Grandma Jia married a poor scholar with the last name Lin and together they had one daughter: Lin DaiYu. She was born sickly and is in persistent frail health and always prone to tears. She is of course the Crimson Pearl!
Now to the right of the chart, Lady Wang has a sister who had married a wealthy merchant with the last name Xue. So she is known as Aunt Xue in the Jia household. She has a daughter named BaoChai who will become DaiYu’s romantic rival.
And there we have the 7 principals: Grandma Jia, Lady Wang, Aunt Xue, Princess Jia (All four go by their titles/ranks in the family followed by their last names). Then there are BaoYu, DaiYu and BaoChai, the three principals involved in the love triangle. You will notice that these two girls, DaiYu and BaoChai, each share one word in their respective names with BaoYu. So you actually only have to learn 4 Chinese words and you will have learned all three names.
You will notice that there are 6 women and only one man! In our opera, the oldest woman, Grandma Jia, is scored for a contralto. DaiYu is a soprano coloratura, and the remaining 4 women are mezzo-sopranos. BaoYu is a lyric tenor.