TAN DUN is to music what Yao Ming is to basketball. He is China's towering ambassador to the world, demonstrating the prowess of the Middle Kingdom on a playing field once considered the exclusive preserve of the West. Here in America, Tan is best known as the Oscar-winning composer of the score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

On December 21st, New York's Lincoln Center played host to the world premiere of Tan's opera, The First Emperor. Tan's production resulted from the rare honor of a direct commission by the Metropolitan Opera to compose an original work of art for its stage in New York. In addition, Tan became the first composer in more than six decades to conduct his own opera at the Met.

Unfortunately, all of Tan's cultural and artistic milestones have been diminished by the response of critics. The New York Times pronounced it "an enormous disappointment." The New Yorker described it as one of Tan's misfires, which "when they fail, they fail spectacularly."

It is hard not to agree with these critical judgments. Yet the disappointing production has a silver lining: an explosive political subtext.

THE FIRST EMPEROR presents an episode from the life of Qin Shi Huang, the ancient king whose appetite for conquest united China's warring states into a single empire, circa 220 BCE. Although celebrated for his monumental public works, including the first massive sections of the Great Wall of China, the first emperor was also an unforgiving taskmaster who provoked great resentment with his endless demands for forced labor and his ferocious punishments of those who resisted. Nor would Qin Shi Huang allow the dissent of intellectuals to threaten the unity of his empire, crushing such views through book-burnings and the executions of dissident scholars.

In short, Qin Shi Huang embodies the dilemma still faces China, more than two thousand years later. Are the benefits of unity and progress worth the terrible cost of cruelty and repression? Is there a place in China for true freedom of thought and expression?

Tan's opera answers the first of those two questions with an unequivocal "no." His Qin Shi Huang is a monster. In the first scene of Act I, the soon-to-be emperor declares that he will conquer the kingdom of Yan in order to find the legendary musician Gao Jianli and force him to compose an anthem for the new Chinese empire.

Gao and the emperor grew up together in a foreign prison, where they "wore shackles and shared a tattered quilt and pile of straw." The emperor recalls that he had no mother, but that Gao's mother, "that gentle soul, breast-fed me like her own. Even now I feel her warmth in my bones." Yet when Gao and the emperor are reunited in Scene II, Gao informs the emperor that his soldiers' horses trampled their mother to death.

Coldly, the emperor responds that sacrifice is the price of order. Gao spits back that "Your pursuit of order has made you a monster . . . Your 'peace' is just a pretext for endless killing." For Quin Shi, things go downhill from there. The emperor's daughter commits suicide. His chief general is poisoned. Even for the emperor himself, the price of unity and progress are misery and loneliness.

AS THE OFFSPRING of intellectuals, Tan Dun shared his parents' fate during the Cultural Revolution, when his family was sent down to the countryside. Only after Mao's death was Tan able to begin his formal studies of music and his ascent to international stardom. Thus, should one approach The First Emperor primarily as a reflection on Mao's horrific brutality, or is Tan also sending a message to the oligarchy in Beijing, which crushes all dissent in the name of preserving unity and order?

On this point, the critics have not been helpful. Although fascinated by every detail of the production, from its unorthodox use of string instruments to the even more unorthodox appearance of its cast on The Late Show with David Letterman, critics have seemed oblivious to its political message.

Tan himself seems eager to encourage the obliviousness. In an interview with the Associated Press, the composer insisted that his work was not political. On Tan's website, there is no talk of his opera's politics. But might it be the case that this musical genius is playing dumb?

After all, Tan's music has often been the subject of political controversy--although you'd never know it from the coverage of his new opera. In fact, the very words of Tan's opera suggest that he understands its political impact. In Scene II of Act I, just after the emperor has completed his conquest of China, he declares himself unsatisfied for several reasons, "Worst of all, because scholars invent words and scripts, spread heresies and invoke ancient stories to mock our success." (Invoke ancient stories to mock the success of China's rulers--who would do such a thing?)

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.

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