An operatic Dream of the Red Chamber

Shannon Jackson, Stan Lai

Shannon Jackson, associate vice chancellor of art and design, presents alum and director Stan Lai with a Berkeley sweatshirt at a pre-opera event in the Dress Circle Lounge at the San Francisco Opera House. (UC Berkeley photo by Kyle Ludowitz)

UC Berkeley recently welcomed a distinguished alumnus, playwright and director Stan Lai, to campus for a series of special events in honor of his directorial work on the San Francisco Opera’s premiere of Dream of the Red Chamber.

On Sept. 12, Berkeley’s Arts Research Center and the Center for Chinese Studies invited more than 175 guests to explore the Chinese novel Dream of the Red Chamber and its transformation into a new opera, including talks by distinguished scholars such as Judith Zeitlin and Wu Hun from the University of Chicago; Jindong Cai and Kara Riopelle from Stanford University; and Cindy Cox and Sophie Volpp from UC Berkeley. The event ended in a lively dialogue with Lai and Wen-hsin Yeh, the Richard H. and Laurie C. Morrison Professor in History at UC Berkeley.

The next evening, the Arts + Design Initiative, in partnership with the Arts and Humanities Division, hosted a special UC Berkeley night at the San Francisco Opera. More than 100 members of the Berkeley campus community attended, including many faculty, staff, alumni and more than 60 students. Lai and Matthew Shilvock, general director of the San Francisco Opera, were there with the UC Berkeley group.

To mark the occasion, the Arts + Design Initiative invited writer Brandon Brown, a staffer with University Development and Alumni Relations, to attend the opera and write about it. Below is his review.

Dream of the Red Chamber

By Brandon Brown
University Development and Alumni Relations

Dream of the Red Chamber, written by Cao Xueqin in the mid-18th century, is one of the four works known as China’s “Four Great Classical Novels.” More than 1,500 pages long, the novel is an epic tale of two wealthy, aristocratic clans in the Qing dynasty, believed to be based on the author’s own family history. The world premiere of the operatic adaptation of the book staged at the San Francisco Opera in September.

San Francisco Opera House

San Francisco Opera House decked out for the premiere of “Dream of the Red Chamber.” (UC Berkeley photo by Kyle Ludowitz)

Faced with the challenge of representing the massive, episodic history of the novel in a three-hour drama, librettists Bright Sheng and David Henry Hwang chose to focus on the novel’s main character, the teenage Bao Yu and the woman he loves, his cousin Dai Yu. Bao Yu is the male heir of the Jia clan, and Dai Yu is his cousin; the episode that recounts their love affair, with its extreme scales of feeling and hardship, is one of the most famous in the long work.

The courtship of Bao Yu and Dai Yu marks the irruption of the supernatural into a story otherwise focused on the quotidian political economy of medieval China. As we are shown in the opera’s opening scenes, Bao Yu and Dai Yu are the physical, human embodiments of mythical figures, a sentient Stone and Flower respectively. In the mythical realm, the Stone and the Flower lived a symbiotic and mutually nourishing existence, but longed to experience their love in human form. There is a fundamental underpinning irony in the theory of love in Dream of the Red Chamber. Stone and Flower propose that the perfection of their relationship is in some sense a defect, and long for a “test” of their desire for each other in order to prove its strength.


Director and Berkeley alumnus Stan Lai captivates the crowd gathered for the pre-opera talk. (UC Berkeley photo by Kyle Ludowitz)

Unfortunately for them, the “struggle” they think will certify their love puts them both in serious duress. The intensity of feeling between Bao Yu (the Stone) and Dai Yu (the Flower) is deep, forged over a common love of poetry and pleasure, and their shared belief that love and desire are better arbiters of the good life than hoarded piles of money. But in the ordinary world of human dominion, their effort to flourish together is threatened by the artificial hierarchies of government and traditional family roles based on common misogyny and the oppressive penury of debt.

In the realm of the family, Bao Yu’s mother and aunt, Lady Wang, have plans for Bao Yu’s nuptials: They wish to see him wed to another cousin, Bao Chai. Their insistence on Bay Yu and Bao Chai’s marriage is at one practical, spiritual, and driven by economic necessity. Bao Chai, much more mature than the impetuous, chronically late and disobedient Bao Yu, will presumably rein in his frivolous devotion to lyric poetry and help him ace the imperial exams on his way to a provincial clerkship.

The benefit of their connection is proven, in the drama on stage, by the fact that Bao Yu was born with jade in his mouth, while Bao Chai received a golden necklace as an infant — both stone and precious metal are inscribed with similar messages. But against this transcendent picture of lovers destined by time and fate, Bao Yu’s mother reveals that the familial alliance effected by their marriage will relieve the Jia clan of their punishing debt to the state. The plot of the opera carries this romantic triangle, set among the imperatives of authority (both imperial and familial), to a conclusion I won’t spoil for you.

view of the stage

A view of the stage. (UC Berkeley photo by Kyle Ludowitz)

Dream of the Red Chamber brings together renowned librettists Sheng, who also wrote the music, and Hwang with director Stan Lai, one of the most recognized and influential Chinese playwrights and directors. Lai, who earned a Ph.D. in dramatic art at Berkeley, directs an extraordinary cast of actors and singers. The vocal performances of Pureum Jo (Dai Yu) and Yijie Shi (Bao Yu) were the highlights for me; the virtuosic passion and pain of their voices resounded days after the premiere.

Tim Yip, the Academy Award-winning art director who made the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, developed unforgettable sets for the action, fluidly evoking scenes from the village, to the Jia clan’s small court, to the imperial bedchamber where Bao Yu’s sister is enslaved as the emperor’s leading concubine. The atmosphere, as the opera moves on, not only narrates a dream but begins to feel like one, albeit one frequently interrupted by the gong, a resounding reminder that power wages war against desire as a rule. The dream is one of the last places where our love grows loud and wild. It’s there where we try to stay, make a world — as Bao Yu and Dai Yu long for desperately — a world full of music.

Brandon Brown’s most recent books are The Good Life (Big Lucks) and Top 40 (Roof).  His writing has recently appeared in Art in America, Open Space, Art Practicaland Best American Experimental Writing He works in University Development and Alumni Relations at UC Berkeley.