Prologue—Dragon Dance (A timeless void)
Amid the braying call of two Chinese trumpets, a water dragon and a fire dragon leap and swoop in the air. Out of their wake of fog, three women emerge: Ruth, a modern American-born Chinese woman; LuLing, Ruth’s mother, an immigrant woman from a previous generation; and Precious Auntie, a disfigured ghost from another world, who clutches a dragon bone.
Act I, Scene 1 (Fountain Court Restaurant, San Francisco, 1997)
For Chinese New Year, a family has gathered for a festive dinner: Ruth, her husband Art, her mother LuLing, her stepdaughters Fia and Dory, her in-laws Marty and Arlene, and an unseen ghost with a disfigured face. Ruth has chosen a menu of dishes symbolizing a lucky and harmonious family, but each dish is rejected as hideous by her husband’s family. LuLing privately despairs at her daughter’s inability to speak up for herself. Sensing her mother’s agitation, Ruth unveils the gift she bought for her birthday, a mink coat, which her relatives immediately condemn as inappropriate. But LuLing is overjoyed by the gift, as well as by Ruth’s recounting of her mother’s special devotion: her warnings of the disasters, insanity, and early death that awaited Ruth if she disobeyed. Her in-laws are impressed with how clearly a writer like Ruth has expressed her thanks. Art then proudly announces that Ruth is ghostwriting a book with one of the lawyers from the O. J. Simpson trial. LuLing offers to help Ruth write, claiming she was with O.J. when he slit the throats of his wife and her friend. As she re-enacts what she saw, everyone realizes LuLing is losing her mind. Angered that no one believes her, LuLing threatens to kill herself. As she storms away, she falls and is mortally injured. Ruth, now feeling guilty, cradles her until the ambulance takes her away. Art assures Ruth she is not to blame, that her mother has been making suicidal threats since Ruth was a child. When he balks at Ruth’s suggestion to let her mother live with them, Ruth becomes overwrought and speaks of killing herself. Art worries that Ruth is becoming like her mother. He offers to get the car and leaves Ruth utterly alone. Suddenly, an unknown woman caresses her cheek. It is the ghost, her face now unblemished. She cloaks Ruth in the garb of another era, and Ruth becomes her mother as a young woman. Together they follow a retinue of dead bodies leaping to the music of a Taoist monk exhorting, “The dead must return home.” And so, the ghost, Precious Auntie, and Young LuLing return to the village of Immortal Heart, where they can relive the tragedy that binds all three.
Act I, Scene 2 (Immortal Heart, a village outside Beijing, 1930s)
Chang the coffin maker extorts money from mourners, claiming that ancestor ghosts will haunt the cheapskates. He then goes to the Wang household’s ink-making studio, where he sells wood used to make ash, an ingredient of “long-lasting ink.” Chang leers at a slave girl, Young LuLing, who is delighted by the attention. Another maid known as Faceless One, spits at Chang and drags Young LuLing away. She is the woman Young LuLing calls Precious Auntie, a woman who claims she saved LuLing as a baby from an icy gutter. Chang secretly boasts that he’s had his way with this faceless woman, the daughter of the late bonesetter. Now he desires not only Young LuLing but what Precious Auntie has: a dragon bone, her inheritance from her father, her future gift to LuLing. When ground into medicine, it guarantees “longest-lasting life,” immortality. He had failed to obtain the bone when he murdered the bonesetter. Young LuLing, he schemes, will now be the means to his getting all that he desires. He strikes a bargain with Madame Wang, a good price on the wood in exchange for the slave girl as his concubine. Precious Auntie sees the secret barter and warns Young LuLing. She shows LuLing her scars to remind her of all the pains she has endured to raise her. But Young LuLing dreams only of a new life as the respected wife of an important man. She cites village gossip that Precious Auntie seduced Chang. Precious Auntie then offers Young LuLing what is as genuine as her words, the coveted dragon bone; Young LuLing gladly accepts it—as part of her dowry, exactly what her future husband wants. Senseless with despair, Precious Auntie grabs back the dragon bone and puts it to Young LuLing's throat. When Young LuLing screams for her life, Precious Auntie drops the bone, horrified at herself, and runs out of the room. Soon wedding guests and Chang’s many wives arrive at the wedding banquet. As the marriage rituals begin, Precious Auntie suddenly appears. She warns that if Chang marries LuLing, a curse will fall upon his family for generations to come and she will be the ghost to carry out the litany of horrors. With that, she drinks a ladle of boiling ink. As her body burns from within, flames rise and the whole world is destroyed.
Act II, Scene 1 (Hong Kong Harbor, 1940s)
Young LuLing, now a destitute young woman, joins a crowd of people who have lost their fate in the war and fled to Hong Kong. Men barter for tickets on a ship leaving for America. To earn her living, LuLing sets up shop on the harbor, writing letters for abandoned wives, pleading that their husbands send for them. A storm blows in and the crowd scatters home. Homeless, Luling seeks shelter among the crates. A man’s sweet voice calls to her, asking for a love letter with perverse promises. Precious Auntie screams unheard, trapped in a void, and Old Luling, in the present world, rises from her hospital bed and watches her past unfold. Young LuLing soon recognizes that the voice belongs to Chang and the crates around her are his coffins. He throws her atop a coffin and as she defends herself with the dragon bone, Chang is delighted to finally have all that he desired. When he commences the rape, Precious Auntie’s fury is enough for her to break out of her confines. She throws Chang to the ground. With the sharp dragon bone, she extracts his confession while slicing his face, chest, and crotch: that he murdered her father, raped her, and was about to rape his own daughter. Young LuLing now realizes Precious Auntie is her mother and Chang her father. As Precious Auntie comforts Young LuLing, Old LuLing joins them in a moment in which three generations broken by pain have become whole again, unified and inseparable in their understanding.
Act II, Scene 2 (A hospital room, San Francisco, 1997)
Young LuLing enters the present and becomes Ruth again. She goes to her mother, Old LuLing, who is disoriented as she approaches death. In a moment of lucidity she begs Ruth to forgive her for hurting her when she was a child. Precious Auntie, now a luminous vision, approaches Old LuLing, who calls to her long-lost mother, also asking her for forgiveness. She tells Ruth to let Precious Auntie wear the mink coat which Ruth had given her. As Ruth puts the mink coat on Precious Auntie, Precious Auntie places the dragon bone in Ruth’s hand so that the pain of the past is transformed into the strength of Ruth’s future. Ruth watches as her mother and grandmother merge into the fog and return to Immortal Heart.
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|GRANT NAME||YEAR||The Opera Fund: Repertoire Development||2008||
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Composer Stewart Wallace incorporates the timbres and textures of Chinese music into his highly expressive and lyrical score — an American opera with roots in China.
Zheng Cao (Ruth Young Kamen)
Ning Liang (Luling Liu Young)
Qian Yi (Precious Auntie)
Hao Jiang Tian (Chang the Coffin Maker)
Wu Tong (Taoist Priest)
James Maddalena (Art Kamen)
Catherine Cook (Arlene Kamen)
Valery Portnov (Marty Kamen)
Madelaine Matej (Dory Kamen)
Rose Frazier (Fia Kamen)
Mary Finch (Chang's First Wife)
Natasha Ramirez Leland (Chang's Second Wife)
Erin Neff (Chang's Third Wife)
Dalian Acrobatic Troupe (Acrobats)
Wu Tong / Zuo Jicheng (Suona)