A Conversation with Ken Smith, Author of Fate! Luck! Chance!

The following is reprinted from Fate! Luck! Chance! – Amy Tan, Stewart Wallace, and the Making of The Bonesetter’s Daughter Opera (Chronicle Books, 2008) pp. 10-18; copyright © by Ken Smith. Used with permission of the author and the publisher, Chronicle Books LLC, San Francisco.

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    As with many other facets of life, the conception didn’t become apparent until sometime after the fact. Everyone connected with The Bonesetter’s Daughter opera has a slightly different perception of when Amy Tan’s 2001 novel first took musical life. In opera, though, the composer’s recollections weigh heaviest, and Stewart Wallace traces the germ of their collaboration—not merely his association with the project, but the musical soul of the entire piece—to the birth of the original novel.

    Having been invited to write a short piece for Amy’s publication party by Sarina Tang, the New York–based art dealer and patron who has been both matchmaker and midwife for the opera, Stewart had intuitively composed an a cappella setting of the first lines of the book without, he maintains, any further knowledge of the story. His approach was more than a tad prophetic, since composer and librettist would later jettison most of the novel’s narrative trappings to find its core truth in operatic terms.

    That distillation process required far more than just a blue pencil. Over time, the veteran opera composer and first-time librettist developed an organic working style. A story about finding oneself by connecting with China took shape, appropriately enough, by connecting with China, with not just Chinese singers and instrumentalists but also acrobats and designers becoming an integral part of the creative vision. Long before its premiere, the opera had already logged hundreds of thousands of air miles.

    Sometime after our second trip to China, Stewart began calling me his “spirit guide,” which seemed strangely appropriate. In my fifteen years as a music critic, I’d generally carried out my professional role from the sidelines, which one colleague has described as “coming onto the field after the battle is over and shooting the wounded.” For this particular opera, though, I’d served on the frontlines. A more thorough description of services offered would include recommending Hong Kong films, ordering regional delicacies, teaching Chinese drinking etiquette, providing coffee, and giving immediate feedback on trans-Pacific phone calls from a composer singing sketches of a new aria. But until I figure out how to fit all of that on a business card, “spirit guide” will have to do.

    The experience put me in the best possible position to observe two supremely collaborative artists and discuss their working process with them at length. Much like Amy’s novels, my own account starts somewhere in the middle and requires a couple flashbacks. I first found out about the project in 2004 over a late-afternoon lunch at Balthazar, a trendy SoHo bistro close enough to Stewart’s home for him to treat it as an extra living room. Though we’d briefly met in Houston at the 1995 premiere of Harvey Milk, his fifth opera and most widely known piece, Stewart and I had really gotten to know each other two years later during the final week of rehearsals for Hopper’s Wife, which I’d attended on assignment for the Los Angeles Times. As tightly focused as Harvey Milk was sprawling, Hopper began with an unapologetically wacky premise—that the painter Edward Hopper was married to the Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. From there, it unfolded into provocative juxtapositions of East and West Coast, rarified and vernacular art, essentially offering a ninety-minute rumination on what it means to be American.

    Since that time, Stewart had focused his musical attention on concert works, writing a series of pieces for percussionist Evelyn Glennie, a postmodern concerto grosso for the American Composers Orchestra and the British new-music ensemble Icebreaker, and an electric guitar concerto titled Skvera for the National Symphony Orchestra and guitarist Marc Ribot. It was Skvera that prompted our fateful meeting at Balthazar, this time for an article for the Washington Post. Soon the conversation took another turn entirely.

    “Did you hear I’m working on an opera with Amy Tan?” he asked. Somehow my profile of Stewart got written, and somehow Stewart’s guitar concerto saw its premiere at Kennedy Center, but from that moment on it became mostly an afterthought.

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    When Stewart finally got around to reading The Bonesetter’s Daughter, he instantly saw in Amy an even more kindred spirit. They were, in a manner of speaking, making similar journeys from different maps. After a nine-month campaign to persuade Amy to bring Bonesetter to the opera stage, Stewart was convinced that as far as personal themes and dramatic structure were concerned, they were already on the same page. There was one major problem: he had no idea what the opera should sound like.

    Years before, Stewart had traveled in Israel with Michael Korie for several weeks in preparation for writing Kabbalah, a non-narrative opera about Jewish mysticism that premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival in 1989. Years later, his travels to the Ukraine when his wife, Dianne Festa, was the Moscow bureau chief for NBC News had yielded much of the raw material for Skvera. This time, he knew that once he got to China, he would find his opera.

    Stewart’s situation was easy to diagnose, particularly since I’d spent the past several years with a similar affliction. Having followed a generation of Chinese-born composers expanding the palette of Western composed music with elements of Chinese opera and Taoist ritual, I’d spent nearly ten years tracing those elements to their source.

    Along the way, I met Joanna Lee, a pianist, musicologist, and general force of nature, who had just embarked on a two-year teaching stint at the University of Hong Kong. After leaving that post, Joanna established herself as a nexus for Western performing artists looking to go to China and for Chinese artists looking to perform in the West. Together we’d embarked on a number of projects, including offering musical advice to film directors and shepherding a recording project of Chinese minority music.

    So when Stewart told me over lunch that he and Amy would be going to China with their respective spouses as part of Sarina Tang’s birthday celebrations, I realized we had little time to lose. I told him, “You have to meet Joanna.”

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    During the course of our subsequent chats, Stewart had become firmly convinced that his best entry into Chinese musical culture was through percussion. That made it simple. With his limited free time, there was only one person he needed to meet: Li Zhonghua, the principal percussionist for the China National Peking Opera Company. Zhonghua had been my own primary contact for all things percussive after a cursory introduction from Guo Wenjing, arguably the most forward-thinking composer living in China. After spending several hours rummaging through the back room of an instrument warehouse to find me a set of cymbals, Zhonghua spent even more time carefully explaining why he’d chosen each piece. Later, I’d come to know him as a superb performer in whose hands even Chinese modernist works sounded like an extension of tradition.

    There was one catch: Stewart needed a translator with specialized terminology and linguistic nuance, and Joanna was not available to help. With a bit of notice we were able to assemble a team to fit the bill: the young China hand Alex Beels, a gifted linguist whom Joanna had known from graduate school at Columbia, and the even younger China hand Eli Marshall, then a twenty-six-year-old composer living in Beijing on a Fulbright grant.

    By any measure, the sessions were a success. What had started out as a primer on percussion-playing technique took on an entirely new dimension as questions got more specific and Zhonghua’s answers began to reveal concepts of Peking opera structure and narrative vocabulary in clear, digestible morsels. Stewart and Amy had already begun thinking of ways to integrate not just the sonorities but also the form and aesthetics of Chinese opera. Even before they left China, Stewart had asked Zhonghua to be part of the team.

    Within weeks of his first sprinkling of Chinese opera, Stewart flew to the Spoleto Festival in Charleston for a full immersion in director Chen Shi-Zheng’s nineteen-hour production of Peony Pavilion—an uncut historical reconstruction of the Ming Dynasty kunju classic that, despite having been banned in Shanghai for reasons never fully explained, went on to have an epoch-making run at Lincoln Center and on the international festival circuit. Stewart quickly became convinced that he’d found his director and also, in the production’s lead female performer Qian Yi, his actual bonesetter’s daughter.

    Soon the sounds of Stewart and Amy’s initial trip started appearing on the page. During one of Stewart’s periodic listening sessions, singing his music to a MIDI simulation of the instrumental score, Joanna again broached the subject of China: “What do you want to see when you go back?” Initially caught by surprise, Stewart quickly rose to the challenge. Following the novel’s geographical scope would require tracing LuLing’s life from small villages outside Beijing onward to Hong Kong and eventually to San Francisco. Beyond that, Stewart had two major goals: to work in greater detail with Zhonghua and to learn as much about as many kinds of Chinese opera as his schedule would allow.

    We could work with that, but we had one minor provision: if Stewart really intended to follow his current model, recruiting like-minded people he met along his path, we had many more friends for him to meet.

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    In August 2005 we were about a month away from our two-week musical road trip through China when Joanna, now officially Stewart’s “organizer, translator and bodyguard,” got the call. “I need to see funerals,” Stewart asked with barely a preamble. Amy might be able to evoke Chinese rituals for a reading audience, but re-creating weddings and funerals on stage was another matter entirely. Clearly the recordings and a copy of Plucking the Winds, a newly published musicological study on village life in Shanxi, hadn’t been enough.

    “You want me to kill somebody?” Joanna asked, incredulously.

    “Whatever it takes.” Our group of thirteen, including Amy and her husband, Lou DeMattei, Sarina Tang, and a handful of early supporters of the Bonesetter opera project, were scheduled to depart from Beijing on September 17, with Stewart arriving a week earlier to see Chinese opera and work with Zhonghua. Our biggest problem with Stewart, the quintessential type A New Yorker, had been keeping him from filling every waking moment ahead of time. In China, where you constantly need to accommodate the unexpected, it is better to allow enough room in the schedule for improvisation and serendipitous discoveries like Zhonghua.

    Our funeral situation was just such an example. An email to Plucking the Winds author Stephen Jones had yielded the name of his research assistant in China. A series of phone calls and a brief face-to-face meeting in Beijing finally produced the desired results. “It’s your lucky day—two funerals,” Joanna told our now-hesitant composer a few hours before he was due to leave for China.

    Although Stewart had gleaned quite a bit from his previous trip—including the need to get out of the cities to see anything of relevance to Amy’s story—it was clear that he was heading into an entirely new level of cultural interaction. This time, he was primed both to see traditional Chinese music and to gauge the quality of China’s Western-trained musicians. Whether we were at a Peking Opera performance at Beijing’s Poly Theatre or a violin recital at the Central Conservatory, the day would extend well into the evening with wide-ranging conversations with artists over dinner and copious red wine.

    Stewart and Amy had already established serendipity as a crucial part of their process, and Joanna and I did what we could to help it along. Our list of friends for Stewart had to fulfill two qualifications: a solid grounding in their tradition, either Chinese or Western, and a desire to interact culturally with others. At the top of the list was Wu Tong, the wind instrument virtuoso in Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, who was more famous at home in Beijing as the founding vocalist for one of China’s most popular metal bands.

    The mezzo-soprano Ning Liang was different case entirely. With mothers always being the most memorably idiosyncratic characters in Amy’s fiction, the role of LuLing would require a strong presence. That said, Stewart was still taken aback at their initial meeting when Ning burst out, “I don’t play old women,” leaving the normally hyperverbal composer at a loss for words. Stewart quickly mobilized his charm offensive and, within days, asked Ning to prepare the opera’s Prologue with two of her students for a fund-raising event at the end of our trip in Hong Kong. After an impromptu working session in Ning’s Beijing apartment, and later recording the Bonesetter Prologue in New York, she officially became part of the Bonesetter family.

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    “Plucking the winds” is how the Chinese describe fieldwork, and three days after arriving in Beijing, Stewart started plucking a few winds of his own. Later our entire group would travel through western China, from the highly commercialized “ancient town” of Fenghuang in Hunan (a recommendation of Hunan native Chen Shi-Zheng) to the remote eco-museum of Dimen in Guizhou (a six-hundred-year-old minority village converted into a living research center by Lee Wai Kit, a Hong Kong businessman and publisher turned Chinese museum director). But it was the village funerals in Shanxi that would make the strongest impression.

    Our destination was Yangjiabu, a small village nearly two hours outside the county town of Datong, the closest marker on the map. Having arrived sometime around 4 p.m.—our “four-hour” drive from Beijing having lasted more than seven, thanks to the burgeoning traffic congestion—we were greeted at the edge of the paved road by Fifth Brother of the Hua family, who escorted us for about 150 yards of ear-splitting fireworks until we reached the first signs of ceremony. Outside a communal courtyard, neighbors had gathered around the Hua Family Shawm Band, a group of semiprofessional musicians who would perform later that year in Amsterdam at the Concertgebouw’s China Festival. Village ceremonies like this, however, were their regular gig.

    Stewart was immediately taken with the performance, a fiery ensemble of percussion and suona, the Chinese reed trumpet. Soon I would understand why—he’d already composed a ceremonial dance featuring precisely this instrumentation—but for the moment we were ensnared by boisterous playing immediately reminiscent of modern jazz and Bulgarian wedding bands, yet very much of a piece with our surroundings.

    A tall black-clad Westerner hardly goes unnoticed in a Chinese village, and Stewart often walked a fine line between observing the festivities and becoming part of the show himself. As we followed the procession into the courtyard, where the Taoist priests were carrying on the ceremony proper, Stewart at one point became so touched by the occasion that he sang a funeral tribute in Hebrew, much to the befuddlement of the deceased’s husband.

    Our road trip through Hunan and Guizhou would later yield additional riches. Now well attuned to spotting funerals, we stumbled upon several more and were always invited in. One night in Zhenyuan, Guizhou, Stewart and I were called over to drink and smoke with friends of the family at the start of a three-night vigil, just after a young relative had burst into a drunken solo recitation from The Three Kingdoms. Minority villages proved less valuable musically, although Stewart would later incorporate the low drones of the lusheng, a Miao mouth organ, in his Bonesetter orchestration, and was so fascinated with the polyphonic singing of the Dong people that he would later adapt their vocal techniques in his choral writing.

    It was the general way of life in the minority villages that offered the greatest illumination. In remote Guizhou, peasant traditions that have long died out in the cities—and even in villages within television range—still carry on, however precariously. Dimen village, which has traditions like papermaking and textile dyeing still in place, as well as scholars and staff to help explain them, won a warm place in our group’s collective heart. It was particularly gratifying that when Joanna and I announced our wedding retreat in Dimen the next year, several members of our original group—including Amy, who had been onsite researching an article about the village for National Geographic magazine—again braved two flights and a ten-hour bus ride to join us.

    “I can’t believe that you’re going on your honeymoon with my husband,” Stewart’s wife, Dianne, exclaimed when she heard that Joanna and I were planning an additional few days of fieldwork after Dimen to hear Sichuan opera in Chengdu and kunju in Suzhou, its historic birthplace. “I’m not sure I’d even do that again,” she added, laughing.

    But we did. The Bonesetter’s Daughter was that kind of project.

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    The conversations in this book did not exist in nature. Rather like a musical recording, they were compiled from multiple takes, spliced and edited to give the flavor of a genuine dialogue in real time. Several comments were taken from public forums, including a public event at the Asia Society in New York. Most were made either in private or among a select, informal audience. Sometimes multiple speakers were in the same room, goading each other on. Most often, the semblance of personal interaction was facilitated by e-mail and the occasional conference call.

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