Ghost Opera

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for String Quartet and Pipa with water, stone, paper and metal
Music, text and installation by Tan Dun (b. 1957)

The conceptual and multifaceted composer/conductor Tan Dun has made an indelible mark on the world’s music scene with a creative repertoire that spans the boundaries of classical, multimedia, Eastern and Western musical systems. Central to his body of work are distinct series of works that reflect his individual compositional concepts and personal ideas: among them, a series which brings his childhood memories of shamanistic ritual into symphonic performances; works which incorporate elements from the natural world; and multimedia concerti. Opera has a significant role in Tan Dun’s creative output of the past decade, mostly recently with the premiere of The First Emperor by the Metropolitan Opera in 2006 with a title role created for Plácido Domingo. In 2008 Tan composed Internet Symphony No. 1: “Eroica”, commissioned by Google/YouTube as the focal point for the world’s first collaborative online orchestra. Of his many works for film, Tan Dun’s score for Ang Lee’s film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, received an Oscar Award for best original score.

Ghost Opera, the first work commissioned from the composer by an American ensemble, was developed by Tan Dun through discussions with Kronos Quartet and Wu Man, and the work received its premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1995 after a weeklong residency with the performers at the BAM Majestic Theater (now the BAM Harvey). Since then, Ghost Opera has been performed by Kronos and Wu Man more than three dozen times around the world, including a noteworthy performance at the Beijing Concert Hall in 1996.

The roots of Ghost Opera may be found in the nuoxi, or exorcism plays, of ancient China. The nuoxi were one part of the rituals performed by a village community to ward off evil spirits and gain the protection of benevolent ones. The ceremonies were conducted by a wushi (shaman), able to communicate with the ghost world. Though held in disdain by Chinese intellectuals for centuries, and repressed as “undesirable” by the Chinese government from the 1950s to the ’70s, these age-old traditions survived in the countryside, including the area around Hunan’s Changsha where Tan Dun grew up. Tan Dun’s Ghost Opera is not an ethnographic recreation of the nuoxi. Rather it is a sort of invented ritual belonging to a world out of time, where the modern, the archaic and the merely old mingle hazily.

In addition to the atmosphere of mystery that pervades Ghost Opera, several elements of the work evoke primeval rites. In place of the incantation “nuo” (“exorcism”), which was repeatedly shouted during nuoxi, participants in Ghost Opera frequently call out “yao.” “Yao” is not only a typical exclamation uttered by excited Hunanese, but the syllable may also refer to the Chinese word for demon. The elemental “Earth Dance,” which unifies the five musicians onstage, evokes the community seeking aid by and from ghosts. The fourth movement, “Metal, Rocks,” creates music that Stone- and Bronze-age Chinese might have recognized.

The shamanistic dialogue with the spirit world is made palpable by means of an old Chinese theatrical tradition: the yingxi, or shadow puppet play. The very first such play conjured ghosts: the Han Emperor Wu, pining for his favorite dead concubine Li Furen, had the magician Shao Weng summon her spirit by means of shadows cast on white cloth. Upon seeing the shadow puppet theater, Tang Dynasty poet Liang Huang reflected: “Human life seems as though it were in the middle of a dream,” a sentiment echoed by Tan Dun when he has the shadow cellist intone Shakespeare’s lines, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.”

At the center of the work are two enigmatic ghosts, wispy and insubstantial: a quotation from Bach’s Prelude in c-sharp minor from the Well-Tempered Clavier and the Chinese folk song “Little Cabbage.” The two pieces present a study in contrasts: one minor, polyphonic, European, composed by a man and performed by the male quartet; the other pentatonic, monophonic, Chinese, sung here by a woman recollecting her dead parents. And yet in the vaporous mists of Ghost Opera, these distinctions seem not to matter. In the third movement the two songs merge, blended into an androgynous phantasm that is neither clearly one nor the other.

With a crash of the gong, the ghosts are banished. Their voices fade into silence beneath the rustle of paper. White as death, the paper unfurls from the shadow-spirit world into our own. The form of the paper suggests the long handscrolls of Chinese landscapes. Singing for the dead, Wu Man rattles the left edge of the scroll, the portion of the painting where the journey ends and the world dissolves.

Program note by Greg Dubinsky

Wu Man

Since moving to the United States from China in 1990, pipa virtuoso Wu Man has not only introduced the traditional Chinese instrument and its repertoire to Western audiences, she has successfully worked to give this ancient instrument a new role in today’s music, making the pipa available to a larger audience and seeing it valued by musicians and composers for its unique tonal qualities and virtuosic character. These efforts were recognized when she was made a 2008 United States Artists Broad Fellow.

Cited by the Los Angeles Times as “the artist most responsible for bringing the pipa to the Western World,” Wu Man continually collaborates with some of the most distinguished musicians and conductors performing today. She has performed as soloist with many of the world’s major orchestras and her touring has taken her to the major music halls of the world.  Wu Man often performs and records with the groundbreaking Kronos Quartet, and is a principal member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project. 

Wu Man began her 2009–10 concert season with two concerts at Carnegie Hall as part of the “Ancient Paths, Modern Voices” festival celebrating Chinese culture.  Her travels in China to find the musicians to perform on these concerts have been documented in a film, Discovering a Musical Heartland—Wu Man’s Return to China.

In November 2009, Wu Man and the Kronos Quartet present the world premiere of a new staged work with video, A Chinese Home, directed by Chen Shi-Zheng.  In May 2010 Wu Man performed in Moscow with Yuri Bashmet and the Moscow Soloists, with whom she was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2009 for Best Small Ensemble Performance for the world-premiere recording of Tan Dun’s Pipa Concerto.  In 2010 she also toured Europe and Asia with the Silk Road Ensemble and performed as soloist in Taipei in November with the Taipei Chinese Traditional Orchestra.

Recent recordings include: Terry Riley’s The Cusp of Magic with the Kronos Quartet on Nonesuch; Traditions and Transformations: Sounds of Silk Road Chicago that features Wu Man’s performance of Lou Harrison’s Pipa Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on the CSO Resound label; and New Impossibilities with the Silk Road Ensemble on Sony/BMG.  In 2009 Wu Man was nominated for two Grammy Awards.

Born in Hangzhou, China, Wu Man studied at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, where she became the first recipient of a master’s degree in pipa.  Wu Man was selected as a Bunting Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study at Harvard University, and was selected by Yo-Yo Ma as the winner of the City of Toronto Glenn Gould Protégé Prize in music and communication. She is also the first artist from China to have performed at the White House.  For more information on Wu Man, please visit her website.


a haunting ritual

Tom Huizenga, The Washington Post

smart and visually arresting...subtly and persistently, West and East grope for one another and merge.

Richard Scheinin, San Jose Mercury News

For Ghost Opera:
Staging and lighting realized by Laurence Neff
Production Management by Kronos Performing Arts Association

Ghost Opera was commissioned for the Kronos Quartet and Wu Man by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, National Endowment for the Arts and Hancher Auditorium/University of Iowa. Kronos and Wu Man’s recording of Ghost Opera is available on Nonesuch.

3-9-13Auckland, New ZealandGreat Hall, Auckland Town HallAuckland Festival
6-4-11San Francisco, CaliforniaYBCA ForumYerba Buena Center for the Arts & Kronos Performing Arts Association
6-3-11San Francisco, CaliforniaYBCA ForumYerba Buena Center for the Arts & Kronos Performing Arts Association
2-18-11Tallahassee, FloridaRuby Diamond AuditoriumSeven Days of Opening Nights
1-12-11Sydney, AustraliaState TheatreSydney Festival
6-4-10Taipei, TaiwanZhongzheng AuditoriumTaipei Chinese Orchestra
2-12-10College Park, MarylandClarice Smith Performing Arts CenterUniversity of Maryland
1-28-10Urbana, IllinoisTryon Festival TheaterKrannert Center for the Performing Arts
1-16-10Stanford, CaliforniaMemorial AuditoriumStanford Lively Arts
11-3-09New York, New YorkZankel HallCarnegie Hall

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Jan23Hanover, New HampshireSpaulding Auditorium
Jan25New York, New YorkZankel Hall

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