The Musical Style and the Cultural Connotation of Bright Sheng's Opera 'Dream of the Red Chamber'
Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA)
First Committee Member
Second Committee Member
Third Committee Member
Fourth Committee Member
Fifth Committee Member
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When people speak about the book Dream of the Red Chamber, their hearts soften. This novel is one of the Four Great Classical Novels in China, and the best-known one. Commissioned by the former director of San Francisco Opera David Gockley, the composer Bright Sheng and the librettist David Henry Hwang adopted the novel into the opera version of Dream of the Red Chamber. Since it premiered at San Francisco Opera house in September of 2016, there is no doubt that the opera was aimed for the Western opera audiences. The original book Dream of the Red Chamber is a teeming epic which is over 2,500 pages long and with 120 chapters and has 975 characters involved. This novel revolves around four politically and financially sounded families—Jia Clan, Shi Clan, Wang Clan, and Xue Clan. These four huge and powerful families are chained by marriages.
Outside of the storylines, there lies another whole world inside the novel Dream of the Red Chamber. Politically, as serious as the feudal autocratic monarchy in the Qing dynasty, the corruption of hierarchical and bureaucracies, the rigescent imperial examination system. And aesthetically, as delighting as the literature, musical, and art traditions. Culturally, as mundane as the behavior and spoken norms, clothing and jewelry aesthetic and drinking, eating habits, and recipes. And philosophically, as worth ruminating as the Chinese Philosophical concepts of Daoist, Buddhism and Confucian—this extraordinary artistic achievement of the Dream of the Red Chamber from every aspect influences later Chinese generations profoundly. A popular research subject derived from this novel since the late Qing dynasty is called “Redology” in Chinese, with subdivisions covering literature, philosophy, historiography, economics, psychology, and Chinese Pharmacology, etc. To sum up the importance of the novel—it embodied the entirety of the traditional Chinese culture within one book. Taking into consideration that Western audiences are mostly cultural outsiders of Chinese literature, and because of the time limitation of the opera’s production, the inevitable for Hwang and Sheng to adjust the libretto and to arrange Chinese musical elements accordingly.
My research will be aimed at the investigation of the ways that the composer, Sheng, and the librettist, Hwang rearranged the Dream of the Red Chamber. I will analyze the ways Sheng combined Chinese elements (such as traditional Chinese Peking Opera percussions, ancient Chinese zither Guqin, traditional Chinese folk tones and traditional Chinese pentatonic modals) with Western musical languages. (such as traditional Western Orchestral setting, the advanced composition technique of engaging numbers of modals at the same time, the ambiguous tonality, the motivic development, etc.) I will also investigate how the staging was set for better understanding by Western audiences, as well as the Chinese cultural signals in the stage and costume design. Finally, I will discuss the pros and cons of this opera and what we can learn from this specific opera.
The composer Bright Sheng is one of the most renowned Chinese-American composers in the United States nowadays. There are already some dissertations writing about his vocal music, chamber music, operas, chamber music, symphony and solo string works. These authors approached the works by studying Chinese elements, folk tunes, and the transcultural phenomenon in his works. These are also the methods I will be using to dissect the opera Dream of the Red Chamber. In this dissertation, I will be using the original score, libretto, video recordings, reviews from both America and China, public interviews of the team of this production, and my own private interview of the composer Bright Sheng as supporting materials to analyze the opera Dream of the Red Chamber.
This argument will be presented in five parts.
1) The Formulation
In this chapter, I will introduce the composer Bright Sheng to my audiences. Then, I will discuss how this production came into being and what is the major concern and composition philosophy of Bright Sheng.
2) The Libretto
In this chapter, I will briefly introduce the novel and I will also focus on these questions: How does the playwright David Henry Hwang recompose the epic novel Dream of the Red Chamber and how can this libretto fit into a Western opera setting?
3) The Music
In this chapter, I will explain these questions in detail: How does Bright Sheng treat Chinese elements in this opera? How does he employ Chinese elements to feature characters? How does he present the principal characters in their signature arias? How does he combine the western techniques with the traditional Chinese elements?
4) The Production
In this chapter, I will demonstrate how the director Stan Lai and designer Tim Yip’s ideas affect the presentation of the conflicts between characters. Also, I will discuss their ideas of presenting Chinese cultural codes in staging, stage and costume design.
5) The Reception and Conclusion
In this chapter, I will collect reviews of this production and layout different voices that revolve with this opera; Following the brainstorm from the standpoint of better delivering of the cultural and musical messages. In other words, what we learn from the pros and cons of the opera Dream of the Red Chamber.
Bright Sheng; Chinese Culture; Chinese Literature; Chinese Opera; Dream of the Red Chamber; Pentatonic scale
Classical Literature and Philology | Music | Theatre and Performance Studies
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Huang, Xirui, "The Musical Style and the Cultural Connotation of Bright Sheng's Opera 'Dream of the Red Chamber'" (2020). UNLV Theses, Dissertations, Professional Papers, and Capstones. 3904.
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