On September 9, in a suburb of San Francisco, 119 people gathered at the Hong Kong Flower Lounge to dine on Peking duck, bird’s nest soup, and other classic Chinese dishes. Most of the diners were Minnesotans.
Kevin Smith, the president of the Minnesota Orchestra, rose to speak. “Who would have thought that this little group from Minnesota would have generated a major world premiere?” he said. “It’s unbelievable.”
The following night, the San Francisco Opera debuted Dream of the Red Chamber. It was written by the Tony Award–winning playwright David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly), composed by classical-music heavyweight Bright Sheng, and designed by Tim Yip (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). Among the leading supporters, called out in the Playbill, were the late Bruce B. Dayton and his wife, Ruth, whose contributions to Mia included major gifts of Chinese art.
The Minnesota connection goes back to 2011, when the Chinese Heritage Foundation, based in Minneapolis, determined to commission a contemporary opera based on Dream of the Red Chamber, an epic 18th-century novel that is among the best-known works of literature in China. Smith, who had recently retired as the head of the Minnesota Opera, suggested they approach the San Francisco Opera.
Bruce and Ruth not only came through with funding to commission the creators, the Chinese art they gave to Mia also found its way to opera-goers. The Chinese Heritage Foundation asked Ann Waltner, a Chinese history expert at the University of Minnesota, to create an online course about the novel and the era that produced it. She came to Mia for examples that would lend historical context, including such Dayton gifts as the Studio of Gratifying Discourse, the Cosmetic Case and Mirror Stand, and Lady at Dressing Table.
Mia made a video of Waltner, along with art historians Karil Kucera of St. Olaf College and Kathleen Ryor of Carleton College, relating the Dream of the Red Chamber to these objects. For more on this classic story, check out the Q&A with Waltner below the video.
Dream of the Red Chamber has sometimes been described as the Chinese equivalent of Romeo and Juliet, in its epic story and familiarity. Is that about right?
ANN WALTNER: Romeo and Juliet is not a great comparison, if only because there’s really nothing else like Dream of the Red Chamber. It’s a million words long, 120 chapters. And everybody in China knows the story. There have been two major TV series made of it, in 1987 and in 2010. There are multiple TV shows about how to cook the food in the novel. When I was putting together the online course, I would talk to one of my graduate students from China about it all the time, asking him when certain events occur in the book, in which chapter, and he could pull out the answer in a few minutes. A native of Hong Kong said she doesn’t remember the first time she read it—she really doesn’t remember a time before she read the novel.
Is it a big book even by Chinese standards, or are all classic Chinese novels so epic?
There are what are called the four great classical Chinese novels, and they are all really, really long. I’m not even sure that Dream of the Red Chamber is the longest one. It’s probably twice as long as War and Peace. So the long novel is not unusual, but at the same time there aren’t many famous, well-known novels in China. Chinese novels can be read episodically—there is a narrative flow and plot, but they really do ask to be picked up and read. With several novels, we’re not even sure what the order of the chapters should be.
Was the book a hit from the beginning, or is its stature a more contemporary phenomenon?
Well, it was written sometime in the mid-1700s but for the first 40 years it just circulated in manuscript form—it wasn’t published until 1791—and accumulated all kinds of commentary. People started writing sequels and poems about it. Ellen Widmer, an expert in Chinese literature, has argued that it was the first major piece of fiction for women, that women almost felt like it was written for them. It changed the role of women as readers.
There was a certain mystery about the author and why it was unpublished for so long. There are people who want to read all kinds of political meanings into the novel. When it was published in the late 18th century, it was not clear that Qing dynasty culture was at its high point and would soon decline, but it’s clear now, and the book can be read as nostalgic. One of the main plot lines is about which of two wonderful women a man will mary. The other is about the decline of a great family—all the main characters belong to it, the women are in fact cousins. And the decline is one of the reasons that people read the book as political commentary. There are a million different ways to read the novel.
Alex Bortolot, content strategist at Mia, contributed to this story.