Lighted bows hum across handheld chimes. On raised platforms on both sides of the stage, illuminated bowls of water hover in the darkness. Figures dressed in black dip their hands into these bowls, lifting up cupped palms and letting the liquid dribble back into the containers. The effect is stunning, both visually and aurally. Lush melodies from the orchestra rise up from the pit while the sounds of the water, slapped and jostled, mix with traditional symphonic instruments.
In this way, from the very beginning, you know that Tan Dun's Tea—which celebrated its American premiere at the Santa Fe Opera last weekend—is no typical opera. Later in the piece, sheets of paper are crinkled and cracked, creating an organic percussive effect that whips through the theater. In the last act, stones are clacked together and ceramic pots are beaten to produce different tones.
All this might sound peculiar, even off-putting, but these effects are melded seamlessly into this alluring production. Ironically, Tea is probably the most accessible contemporary opera I've encountered during the eight years I've covered the Santa Fe Opera. Tan Dun's orchestration and melodies are catchy and memorable. Although the storyline is abstract, the costuming and sets are both ornate and elegant. It's a fun show with wide appeal, even for those who aren't necessarily interested in experimental performances.
The libretto was co-written by Tan Dun and Xu Ying. The story opens in a monastery tea garden in Japan. A monk named Seikyo tells his brothers he once was a prince. Almost immediately, the opera flashes back to a scene in China in which Seikyo pays a visit to the emperor. His main purpose for the visit seems to be to reunite with the emperor's daughter, Lan. After the monk recites a poem to her about tea, the king agrees he is a worthy suitor and consents to their marriage.
At this point, a message arrives from the Prince of Persia saying he will trade 1,000 horses for The Book of Tea. Lan's brother, the Prince, produces a book which he claims is the genuine article. Seikyo, however, is unconvinced. He claims it's a fake, sparking a fight with the Prince. Seikyo and Lan then begin a quest to the south of China to find Lu Yu, the author of the book.
Fused with rituals and numerous spiritual references to both the traditional tea ceremony and the natural world, Tan Dun's opera has a hypnotic, meditative quality. There's plenty of drama, but Tan Dun's characters seem more symbolic than realistic. Seikyo, Lan and the Prince aren't people you'd meet on the street. They're more like signposts along the road to some higher state of consciousness.
The lead singers in this production—Haijing Fu as Seikyo, Kelly Kaduce as Lan, Roger Honeywell as the Prince and Christian van Horn as the Emperor—have a riveting rapport with each other on stage. The choruses that punctuate the drama are reminiscent of Tibetan chants. The lush instrumentation keeps the show exciting by oscillating repeatedly between serenity and storminess.
The visual spectacle of it all threatens at times to overpower the composer's gorgeous music, but this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Tea is designed to dazzle more than just your ears. This production is so beautiful it seems more like a religious ritual than a mere opera. We're lucky to have it here in New Mexico for the summer.