Playing By Ear: The Bonesetter’s Daughter

Ruth Young Kamen (played by Zheng Cao) and Precious Auntie (Qian Yi) premiere in The Bonesetter's Daughter at the San Francisco Opera. [Photo: Terrence McCarthy/NPR] I listened to an NPR Music story about The Bonesetter’s Daughter, a new opera by composer Stewart Wallace and librettist Amy Tan. It’s based on Tan’s novel of the same name and premieres tonight at the San Francisco Opera.

The radio story  tells several powerful stories at once. Hao Jiang Tian, who sings the opera’s bass role, tells a story about listening to a fragile phonograph record of Beethoven’s 6th Symphony with his father during China’s tumultuous Cultural Revolution. The story made me think of Alex and his love for the Pastoral, so I am sending this out to him. It’s worth listening to the NPR stream for this story alone, but the piece also intertwines Tan’s family journey with the opera’s story. The radio version is far richer than reporter Jackie Lyden’s text summary:

The Bonesetter’s Daughter begins with three characters emerging from a mist. One is a Chinese-American daughter, like Tan; the second is a mother, like hers, born in China. The third is a haunted and haunting ghost named Precious Auntie. The three entities make their way through a fog and sing about the things they know to be true.

In the early 1920s, Tan’s grandmother, a widow, stayed overnight on an island while visiting a family friend.”The husband came in and he raped my grandmother,” Tan says. “She then lost face: Everybody knew about this, her brother kicked her out. And she had a baby as a result of that, and then she killed herself shortly after the baby was born.”

“In those days, when you killed yourself, you would come back as a ghost and often exact revenge,” she says. “So it wasn’t simply out of despair. It was definitely with the sense that you were going to come back with a different power.”

Tan says she didn’t know her grandmother had committed suicide until she was an adult.

Writing the opera, Tan and Wallace decided to give the grandmother power. But how, exactly, would the ghost, Precious Auntie, plot revenge?

Precious Auntie is a ghost of protection, but she also turns on her daughter, threatening to murder her with a dragon bone when the daughter declares that she will marry her own mother’s rapist.

When Tan was young, she threatened to run away with a disastrous man, and her mother unraveled.

“She held a cleaver to my throat,” Tan says. “I knew she could possibly do it.”

She threatened to kill Tan, her brother and then herself and said “we’re all going to go to where they went,” referring to Tan’s father and brother, who died within months of each other when Tan was 15.

“And I was so devoid of emotion,” Tan says, “so I just said, ‘Do it.’ And suddenly I felt this voice — it was not me — I felt this voice come, and I heard the voice, and it said, ‘I want to live, I want to live, I want to live.'”

A few months ago, Tan visited the island where her grandmother died — and where her mother was raised — which allowed her to exorcise some ghosts of her own. The visit and its unhappy legacy allowed Tan to more fully understand the suffering endured by her mother and grandmother.

Onstage, when the mother figure dies, the opera portrays her death gently and dramatically. The misunderstandings between mother and daughter also float away. On the mother’s deathbed, she asks her daughter for forgiveness.

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