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Crouching Opera, Hidden Message

The mystery of Tan Dun and "The First Emperor."

11:00 PM, Jan 11, 2007 • By DAVID ADESNIK
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When the Chinese Communist Party launched a campaign against "spiritual pollution" in 1983, one of its targets was Tan Dun, who was then a rising star both within China and abroad. The charge against him was that he supposedly borrowed too much from the Western tradition and demonstrated a lack of ideological fervor. In early 1986, Tan left to China to enroll in a Ph.D. program in music at Columbia University.

In the mid-1990s, Tan received an unusual commission from the colonial government of Hong Kong: he was to compose a symphony for the celebrations that would mark the outpost's return to the sovereignty of mainland China. The surprisingly festive nature of Tan's Symphony 1997 provoked criticism from those who had not forgotten the Tiananmen Square massacre and warned of the repression that Beijing would ultimately impose on Hong Kong.

More recently, Tan took part in another project that was assailed by critics as an apologia for the dictatorship in Beijing: the 2002 film Hero. Tan composed the score for the film, which was directed by Zhang Yimou, and told the story of a band of assassins determined to kill the emperor of China. The emperor's name? Qin Shi Huang. Except that in Hero, Qin was portrayed as China's savior.

Washington Post film critic Stephen Hunter angrily denounced the film as a justification for "the tyrant's creed . . . Do it my way and there's less conflict. Obey me and it'll be better." This, Hunter said, was the way of Stalin, the way of Hitler and the way of Mao. Director Zhang insisted that the film had no political agenda. Nonetheless, the government in Beijing expressed its satisfaction with the film.

IT IS INTERESTING TO NOTE that after composing The First Emperor for the Met, Tan chose Zhang to direct his opera. Why would the same men who collaborated on a flattering portrait of the first emperor now portray him as a monster? The words of Tan's opera unequivocally suggest one answer to this question: guilt.

In the opera, even though the emperor's soldiers have trampled to death the mother of protagonist Gao Jianli, he accepts the emperor's commission to write a new anthem for the empire. Why? Because Gao has fallen madly in love with the emperor's daughter, the spirited Princess Yueyang. The princess, however, is betrothed to Wang, the emperor's chief general.

Obsessed by the desire to have Gao compose an anthem, the emperor tells him to be patient. Sooner or later, the general will fall in battle and Gao will be able to marry Yueyang. Gao accepts the emperor's offer, only to discover the tragic price of compromise with a tyrant: Profoundly disappointed by her lover's compromise, Yueyang commits suicide.

Although devastated by the loss of his daughter, the emperor sings that "her soul, like a golden cloud is flying toward the gate of Heaven." Unconvinced by this self-serving rationalization, Gao responds "I see nothing but blood. Blood, blood everywhere, even my own hands are stained."

Devastated, Gao commits suicide by biting off his own tongue and spitting it at the emperor. His final words before dying are "I curse this tongue that called you [the emperor] Elder Brother! Elder Brother--ah, here is my tongue!" Thus the fate of the artist who lends his voice to a tyrant.

OF COURSE, if that's the lesson of The First Emperor, it seems to have eluded Zhang Yimou, who has accepted an offer to direct the opening and closing ceremonies for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The real mystery is whether Tan accepts the political implications of his own vision. It is mystery that may be resolved by the future of The First Emperor. The production is only scheduled for nine performances in New York. Where will it go next? Chicago? Tokyo? Shanghai? Taipei? Beijing?

It doesn't take a lot of courage to criticize the Chinese government through the prism of a metaphorical opera staged in New York. The real test may come when Tan Dun decides whether or not to take his vision to China.

David Adesnik, a policy analyst in Washington, is the editor of OxBlog.com.