1. 秦颂 1996, budget ~$4 million (3000万元)
  2. 刺秦 1998, $10 million (8000万元)
  3. 英雄 2002, $31 million
  4. 秦始皇 2006, $2 million

Tan Dun’s opera was premiered last Thursday by the Met Opera and LA Opera. The storyline seems to follow 秦颂. The cost is of course only a fraction of those “Big Movies”, disproportional to the bad review in NYTimes, its worst parts quoted here:

Mr. Tan’s approach to operatic lyricism and vocal writing seems ill-conceived… His music does sing. And sing. And sing. On and on. Whatever the mood of the moment, whether dreamy, defiant, sensual or tragic, as soon as the characters break into song, the melodic lines are inevitably long, arching and slow… “The First Emperor” gives soaring melody a bad name.

The expansive lyricism begins enticingly but soon turns saccharine and, worse, inert.

Mr. Domingo(‘s)… best friend onstage often seemed to be the experienced prompter, Donna Racik, invisible to the audience but quite often the focus of Mr. Domingo’s attention. And though the role was written for him, he could not disguise the effort involved in singing it. Despite his trouble with top notes in recent years, Mr. Domingo’s voice sounded freshest when the lines took him into his still clarion upper range. The man takes on too much.

With one intermission, the opera lasted just 3 hours 20 minutes yet seemed much longer. In the final scene… after… in what may be the longest farewell aria in opera, which is saying something…, Mr. Domingo breaks one final time into lofty flights of ponderously arching lyricism. Listening, you cannot help thinking, “Oh, no, not again.”

“Oh, no, not again” is the exact reaction when my dad told me about the opera a while ago. It’s easy to find reasons for the Chinese quote-unquote artists’ obsession with our first emperor, but enough is enough! There may be more reasons to believe this string of “epics” indicate almost everything that’s bad going on in China these days. There are always good arts and bad arts. More money, more epic, more emperors don’t make bad arts good.

My dad taught all of those 5th generation directors. My mum taught Tan Dun musicology. I kind of feel sorry for my parents as teachers, not that they did anything wrong, nor that they could’ve done anything to let those guys grow up in a better way. They couldn’t have foreseen the future, but I wonder if they could, what they would’ve told those students–go back to your farms?

It hurts even more knowing that those guys are very capable of good stuff. I think 活着 is one of the best Chinese movies I’ve seen, 千里走单骑 and 秋菊打官司 very good, 霸王别姬 decent, or even 最后的疯狂 not bad in a historical term. And Tan Dun could become one of the greatest composers of our time unless he goes down on a road like this one.

Wake up, guys!

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