Journey of The Bonesetter’s Daughter
Documentary About the Making of an Opera Based on
Amy Tan’s Bestselling Novel Premieres on PBS on
Mothers Day, Sunday, May 8, 2011 at 10:00 p.m. ET
(check local listings)
JOURNEY OF THE BONESETTER’S DAUGHTER follows the creation of the San Francisco Opera’s celebrated production of The Bonesetter’s Daughter, composed by Stewart Wallace with a libretto by Amy Tan and based on her bestselling book of the same name. An ambitious, cross-cultural tour de force that brings together artists from China and the U.S, the opera tells a deeply moving story about the difficult but unbreakable bond between mothers and daughters inspired by Tan’s own family history. Directed by David Petersen and produced by Monica Lam, JOURNEY OF THE BONE-SETTER’S DAUGHTER will premiere nationally on PBS on Mother’s Day, Sunday, May 8, 2011 at 10:00 p.m. ET (check local listings).
Tan’s libretto draws heavily on the tragic suicide of Tan’s maternal grandmother, and explores the impact of the trauma on successive generations. “My grandmother was somebody who was forced into a subservient position,” Tan says. “She was raped, and the only way she could gain her power was to kill herself.” The film follows Tan as she explores her past, traveling with her half sisters to the home in China where her grandmother lived and died. As the opera production is mounted, Tan grapples with how best to capture and preserve the emotional truth of her family story in the drama unfolding on stage.
As in her earlier novels The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God’s Wife, author Tan uses elements of her own life in The Bonesetter’s Daughter to explore the immigrant experience and the ways in which both love and history can be lost in translation. The opera opens at a birthday party in San Francisco ’s Chinatown . Ruth (Zheng Cao), a young Chinese-American woman, has organized the celebration for her aging mother, LuLing (Ning Liang). But the party disintegrates when LuLing launches into a delusional tirade, an early sign of her Alzheimer’s disease. LuLing’s illness and the revelation that she has guarded family secrets since childhood prompt Ruth to begin a journey of discovery into her mother and grandmother’s past.
The making of the opera spans two continents and artistic traditions — classical Western opera and traditional Chinese opera — and the film chronicles the extraordinary challenges of creating an ambitious new work of art. Tan’s collaborators, American composer Stewart Wallace (Harvey Milk), and Chinese opera director Chen Shi-Zheng (Peony Pavilion), both bring their forcefully contemporary sensibilities to the production. The film follows Wallace as he travels to China to research its musical traditions. “I wanted to write the opera in my own voice, but to make it feel like China ,” Wallace says. “That was an easy thing to say; it was a harder problem to crack.” Wallace integrates music written for traditional Chinese instruments into his score, but also brings some of China ’s best musicians to the San Francisco Opera to play alongside its full Western orchestra.
Chen Shi-Zheng, who immigrated to the United States from China as a young man, brings to the staging of The Bonesetter’s Daughter a blend of traditional and contemporary influences. “I don’t want this to be a Chinatown parade,” Chen says. “I’m very interested in a new form of opera — a new American opera.” Under his direction, Chinese acrobats tumble across the stage while abstract video projections create an ever-shifting visual backdrop for the unfolding drama.
The film captures the creative and technical challenges of mounting a new work, one with high emotional and artistic stakes. Tan and Chen struggle to reconcile their divergent stylistic interpretations of her autobiographical story. The Chinese and Western musicians collaborate despite their vastly different musical training. Tensions rise during daily rehearsals involving hundreds of singers, orchestra musicians and backstage personnel, as changes are made until moments before the curtain rises.
JOURNEY OF THE BONESETTER’S DAUGHTER shows the power of art to engage, inspire and transform. For the opera’s talented and diverse creators, the collaboration tests cultural boundaries and takes enormous artistic risks to define anew both Western and Eastern operatic form. For Tan, the opera allows her to give voice to her grandmother’s sacrifice, heal the trauma that so profoundly affected her mother, and deepen the complicated bond shared among these three generations of women.
Making the Film
Filmmakers Monica Lam and David Petersen traveled to China with librettist Amy Tan and composer Stewart Wallace to capture some of their creative process. Together with Tan and her half-sisters, they traveled to Shanghai and Chongming to explore the places where Tan’s family history had unfolded. They also followed Tan’s exploration of the sights and sounds of Hong Kong , one of the sources of inspiration for her writing. With composer Stewart Wallace, they journeyed to remote and beautiful parts of southern China where traditional Chinese music and instruments can still be heard, and to Beijing as he rehearsed with the Chinese musicians who played in the orchestra.
During rehearsals at the San Francisco opera house, the filmmakers were able to intimately observe the complex and dynamic operations of a world-class performing arts organization. From costume and set design to musical rehearsals and acrobat choreography sessions, the film follows the intensive process of realizing art on the grand stage.
Executive Producer: Fawn Ring
Director/Camera/Editor: David Petersen
Producer/Camera: Monica Lam
Executive Producer for CAAM: Stephen Gong
Executive Producer for ITVS: Sally Jo Fifer
A co-production of Outlier Films, LLC, the Center for Asian American Media, the Independent Television Service, and KQED San Francisco, with funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts, John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn, Franklin P. and Catherine H. Johnson, The Shenson Foundation and The Fleishhacker Foundation.
About the Opera’s Creators
Born in the U.S. to immigrant parents from China , Amy Tan (Librettist) rejected her mother’s expectations that she become a doctor and concert pianist. She chose to write fiction instead. Her novels include The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God’s Wife, The Hundred Secret Senses, The Bonesetter’s Daughter, and Saving Fish from Drowning, all New York Times bestsellers. She is also the author of a memoir, The Opposite of Fate, two children’s books — The Moon Lady and Sagwa, The Chinese Siamese Cat — and numerous articles for magazines including The New Yorker, Harper’s Bazaar, and National Geographic. Her work has been translated into 35 languages, from Spanish, French, and Finnish to Chinese, Arabic, and Hebrew.
Tan served as Co-producer and Co-screenwriter with Ron Bass for the film adaptation of The Joy Luck Club. She was the Creative Consultant for Sagwa, the Emmy-nominated PBS television series for children, which aired worldwide, including in the UK , Latin America, Hong Kong , China , Taiwan , and Singapore . Her New Yorker story, Immortal Heart, was performed on stages throughout the U.S. and in France . Tan appeared as herself in the animated series The Simpsons. Tan’s other musical work for the stage is limited to serving as lead rhythm dominatrix, backup singer, and second tambourine with the literary garage band, the Rock Bottom Remainders, whose members include Stephen King, Dave Barry, and Scott Turow. In spite of their dubious talent, their yearly gigs have managed to raise over a million dollars for literacy programs.
Tan has lectured internationally at universities, including Stanford, Oxford , Jagielloniun, Beijing , and Georgetown , both in Washington D.C. and Doha , Qatar . Her essays and stories are found in hundreds of anthologies and textbooks, and are required reading in many high schools and universities. Tan is currently at work on a new novel.
Composer Stewart Wallace was born in Philadelphia , Pennsylvania , but grew up in Texas . The radical mix of jazz, blues, gospel, Tejano, rock and classical music there profoundly influenced him. He played in a rock and roll band and sang as a cantor in the synagogue.
At age twenty-eight, he had his first major premiere, Where’s Dick? at Houston Grand Opera, initiating a long and fruitful collaboration with librettist Michael Korie. Harvey Milk, Wallace’s fifth full-length opera and most widely known score, was commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera, New York City Opera and the San Francisco Opera. Other operas he has composed with librettist Michael Korie include Hopper’s Wife and Kaballah, an abstract work sung in Hebrew, Aramaic, Medieval Spanish and German, and English.
Wallace has written music in every genre with performances throughout the world, including a trilogy for percussion soloist Evelyn Glennie, featuring Indonesian gongs and a toy piano. His Book of Five for the British amplified ensemble Icebreaker and the American Composers Orchestra, was performed in Vienna , the United Kingdom and Germany . Wallace’s works include the ballet Peter Pan and film scores for documentary and feature films. Skvera for Electric Guitar and Orchestra was composed for “Guitar God” Marc Ribot and inspired by a trip to the Ukrainian shtetl his grandparents fled before the Russian Revolution.
A 2006 Guggenheim Fellow, Wallace has also received awards and commissions from the National Endowment for the Arts, New York Foundation for the Arts, Opera America, Meet the Composer, Mary Flagler Carey Trust. He was Music Alive Composer-in-Residence at the National Symphony, a fellow of the inaugural Institute for the Arts and Civic Dialogue at Harvard in 1998, and artist-in-residence at Princeton University at Toni Morrison’s Princeton Atelier. His residencies at the MacDowell Colony and Yaddo, where he first met Amy Tan, were indispensable in the creation of The Bonesetter’s Daughter opera.
Stage Director Chen Shi-Zheng, who was born and raised in China during the Cultural Revolution, studied traditional Chinese opera at Hunan Art School . He is now based in New York and works internationally as a stage and film director. In 1999, his landmark nineteen-hour production of the traditional Chinese opera The Peony Pavilion was hailed as one of the most important theatrical events of the twentieth century. The work had its Western premiere as the centerpiece of the Lincoln Center Festival. His recent “circus opera” Monkey: Journey to the West, an adaptation of a 16th century Chinese novel, was performed at the Manchester Festival, the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, the Spoleto Festival USA and Covent Garden.
Chen recently directed The Coronation of Poppea for the English National Opera as part of a complete Monteverdi cycle. Other Western operatic credits include Così fan tutte for the Aix-en-Provence Festival and Théâtre des Champs Elysées, and Dido and Aeneas for the Handel & Hadyn Society and the Spoleto Festival USA. Chen made his directorial debut in 1996 with The Bacchae for the China National Beijing Opera Company.
His first feature film Dark Matter won the Sundance Film Festival’s Alfred P. Sloan Prize and was released in cinemas across the U.S. in Spring 2008.
About the Opera’s Stars
Qian Yi (Precious Auntie) made her San Francisco Opera debut in The Bonesetter’s Daughter, her first role in a Western opera. At age ten, Yi entered the Shanghai Chinese Opera School , where she studied kunju, an ancient traditional operatic form. She performed to great acclaim on four continents in the nineteen-hour Ming Dynasty drama The Peony Pavilion, directed by Chen Shi-Zheng. Yi has appeared in several innovative theater pieces based on Chinese opera, including Ghost Lovers at Spoleto Festival USA, the Orphan of Zhao at Lincoln Center , and Snow in June at the American Repertory Theater. She has also worked in Western theater, appearing in Meredith Monk’s Turtle Dream, Amy Trompetter’s puppet-driven adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince, and the Hans Christian Andersen commemorative musical My Life as a Fairytale. Yi’s screen credits include Alexander Ku’s independent short, Triple Eight Palace, an official selection of the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, and Dark Matter, directed by Chen Shi-Zheng.
Ning Liang (LuLing). After earning a master’s degree at the Juilliard School , mezzo-soprano Ning Liang went on to become the first Chinese singer to perform at such international houses as La Scala and Vienna State Opera, where she sang the role of the Composer (Ariadne auf Naxos ). She made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Octavian (Der Rosenkavalier) and has appeared at Hamburg State Opera, Bavarian State Opera, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Bologna’s Teatro Comunale, Toulouse’s Théâtre du Capitole and Paris’s Théâtre du Châtelet in such roles as Rosina (Il Barbiere di Siviglia), Dorabella (Così fan tutte), Cherubino (The Marriage of Figaro), and Idamante (Idomeneo). Liang co-created the role of the Shaman in Chinese composer Tan Dun’s opera The First Emperor, and appeared as Suzuki in Mitterrand’s 1995 film Madame Butterfly. The mezzo-soprano is a winner of the Metropolitan National Council Auditions, the Rosa Ponselle International Voice Competition, and the Luciano Pavarotti and Mirjam Helin competitions. Singer of Mahler’s works, Liang has recorded the composer’s Second and Eighth Symphonies as well as Das Lied von der Erde.
Zheng Cao (Ruth Young Kamen/Young LuLing). Former Adler Fellow and Merola Opera Program participant Zheng Cao is a regular guest of leading companies in the United States and abroad. She made her 1995 San Francisco Opera debut as Siebel in Faust and has since returned to the Company in numerous roles, including Idamante (Idomeneo), Suzuki (Madame Butterfly), Cherubino (Le Nozze di Figaro), and Nicklausse (Les Contes D’Hoffmann). Cao is a native of Shanghai and holds a master’s degree from the Curtis Institute of Music. She has performed around the world with major orchestras such as the National Symphony Orchestra, the Warsaw Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Honolulu Symphony, and the China Philharmonic Orchestra. The mezzo-soprano can also be heard in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde with the China Philharmonic Orchestra, and sings Jake Heggie’s song cycle Deepest Desire.
Tian Hao Jiang (Chang). Since his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1991, bass Tian has appeared with that company in more than twenty-six roles, including Count des Grieux (Manon), Raimondo (Lucia di Lammermoor), the King of Egypt (Aida), Timur (Turandot), and as General Wang in the world premiere of Chinese composer Tan Dun’s The First Emperor. He created the title role of Guo Wenjing’s Poet Li Bai at Denver ’s Central City Opera, with subsequent performances in Beijing , Shanghai , and Rome . A native of Beijing , Tian graduated from China ’s Central Conservatory of Music and later joined the Central Philharmonic Society. After coming to the United States , he earned a master’s degree from the University of Denver . In 2008, Tian released Along the Roaring River: My Wild Ride from Mao to the Met, an autobiography that chronicles his experiences during the Cultural Revolution in China . Tian went on to create and tour with a one-man show based on his book, which can now be seen on PBS.
About the Filmmakers
Monica Lam (Producer/Camera) is an independent documentary filmmaker who has produced and shot films from around the world. Lam has reported and produced international reports for the PBS series FRONTLINE/World, including Paraguay: Sounds of Hope, about a social entrepreneur’s effort to transform the lives of poor children in Paraguay through music, and A Message from the Sea, which examines how mercury contamination is affecting a centuries-old whale hunting tradition in the Faroe Islands. Lam has covered the political tensions faced by Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang, China, documented the lives of Yanomami Indians living in the Amazon jungle, and followed the lives of young men growing up in Cuba and West Oakland. Lam has taken her camera into sweatshops in southern China to document the lives of young women seamstresses for China Blue, delved into the story of Vietnamese boat people for Bolinao 52, and explored the aftermath of apartheid in the Academy Award-nominated tragic story of a young South African photographer, The Death of Kevin Carter. Closer to home, Lam co-produced and shot a news magazine piece about the American right-to-life movement and fertility technologies for Swiss National Television, as well as The Rules of the Game, a documentary about California Indian gaming. In addition to her experience as a producer and cinematographer, Lam speaks Spanish, Cantonese, and German, and is proficient in French and Mandarin.
David Petersen (Director/Camera/Editor) has had his films exhibited at numerous international museums and festivals, including Centre Georges Pompidou, the Museum of Modern Art , the Hirshhorn Museum , the National Gallery of Art, and the Library of Congress. His films are in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art , National Gallery of Art, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. His Academy Award nominated documentary Fine Food, Fine Pastries, Open 6 to 9, received first place prizes in numerous international film festivals and his PBS documentary If You Lived Here You Would Be Home Now was an Independent Spirit Award Nominee. His feature-length documentary Let the Church Say Amen, was an official selection of the 2004 Sundance Film Festival among many others, premiered on the PBS series Independent Lens, and was honored as “one of the best documentaries of 2004” by the Academy Award Documentary Committee. His most recent films include a filmmaking commission from The MacDowell Colony: 2 Months to be Quiet which premiered at the Museum of Modern Art; Vila Aliança, a feature length documentary now in production, and the dramatic film Billy and Ray, co-written with New Yorker writer Alex Kotlowitz and produced by Amy Hobby (Secretary). David Petersen has received numerous artist fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, VCCA, Blue Mountain Center , and the Ragdale Foundation. As a writer, he has received commissions from La Jolla Playhouse, Squonk Opera, Miramax Films; and his fiction has appeared in various literary journals in the United States and overseas. He is now assistant professor in the Media Arts Department of both the New School University and the College of Staten Island .
Fawn Ring (Executive Producer) is an award-winning executive producer, producer, host and correspondent, with more than 30 years of experience in public broadcasting as a creator and manager of programs and production partnerships. From 2007 until 2011, Ring managed local television production for KQED San Francisco, where she encouraged cooperation among the station’s content divisions to further KQED’s goal of becoming a fully integrated public media organization. Prior to joining KQED, Ring was responsible for arts programming at WTTW Chicago and developed some of its most innovative programming initiatives. She produced programs for PBS’s Great Performances, and the PBS special, Love In Four Acts, featuring dances by Chicago ’s top choreographers. Her executive producing credits include the Iris Award-winning documentary Record Row: Cradle of Rhythm & Blues, the story of the rise and fall of Chicago ’s rhythm and blues recording industry, and JUBA! Masters of Tap and Percussive Dance,” a performance-documentary about the resurgence of tap dance in America .
About the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM)
Since launching the ground-breaking Asian American anthology series “Silk Screen” on PBS (1982-1987), the CAAM (http://caamedia.org/) continues to bring to national audiences award-winning works.
CAAM occupies a unique position as the voice of Asian Pacific American communities in the world of public broadcasting. We carry a responsibility that no other group has — to ensure that our communities have access to production for public television and to get shows on PBS.
Our premise is that the “public” in public television must be inclusive of Asian Pacific American viewpoints and stories. CAAM works with the public television system on national, regional, and local levels to ensure the broadcast of innovative, engaging works.
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The Bonesetter’s Daughter
Music by Stewart Wallace
Libretto by Amy Tan, based on her novel
Commissioned by San Francisco Opera, David Gockley, General Director
Directed by Chen Shi-Zhen
Conducted by Steven Sloane
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