I’ve read a number of negative reactions to Tan Dun’s new opera, The First Emporer, which recently had its premiere at the Met. You can read comments by An Unamplified Voice, Maury Dannato, Jonathan over at Wellsung, with reviews by Tommasini and Hoelterhoff. Ouch.

But I have to admit that this reviewer’s comment, “Where were the memorable melodies to take home?”, doesn’t do it for me. And then there was this (frightening … at least to me) paragraph:

There were Pucciniesque moments of passionate tunes. Some even made allusions to the Italian composer’s last masterpiece “Turandot,” which was set in China. But a little repetition of melody a la Andrew Lloyd Webber, rather than of the striking of a big Chinese bell, might better jog the listener’s memory.

Do I have reason to be troubled by that, or am I over reacting? Thoughts?


  1. I think you have reason to be troubled by this, and I am bothered by it as well.  I’m not sure that humability or Puccininess are necessarily hallmarks of something being good.  Not that The First Emperor is a good or great opera – I myself am in no position to judge since I haven’t seen it yet though will get a chance to in NY next week.  I did listen to it on Sirius and while I didn’t get to hear it all, thought much of it was quite interesting.

    The other thing about many of the blog reviews I’ve read that irks me is the lack of acknowledgment that Tan Dun appears to be going for a type of hybrid work.  One that is neither entirely in the Chinese or Western tradition of opera.  Maybe it shouldn’t sound like a Western opera from the Puccini tradition because it isn’t meant to be.  Maybe the comparisons and references to Puccini in many of these reviews are inappropriate to begin with.  Why should a near century-old Western ersatz-version of Asian culture be the hallmark for something decidedly more authentic in origin?  I think its hard not to read some of the derisive comments about the presence of traditional Chinese percussion in favor of a more familiar Western melody focus as racist on some level.  Maybe we’ve all swallowed a bit too much Mikado over the last century or so.

    I think the Tomasini review in today’s NYT and the piece by Mark Swed in today’s LA Times are far more even-handed and try to take some of this into account in their reviews of the piece.

    Just some thoughts.  I enjoy your blog by the way.


  2. Patricia Mitchell

    Good to hear from you, Brian. Thanks much for writing, and for providing some good thoughts. (I enjoy your blog quite a bit!)

    Sometimes I just wonder … do people really want the same old same old? Are we supposed to rehash all that has already been done? I wonder.

    Again, thanks for writing!