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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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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?)