Students perform workshop production of new opera by Prof. Bright Sheng

Prior to its world premiere by the San Francisco Opera (SFO) in September 2016, a group of voice and piano students at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance will have the unique opportunity of performing a workshop production of Dream of the Red Chamber. The English-language opera, commissioned by the SFO, was composed by Bright Sheng, SMTD’s Leonard Bernstein Distinguished University Professor, with a libretto co-authored by Professor Sheng and David Henry Hwang, the award-winning writer of plays, musicals, and films.

The workshop performance, on Thursday, February 18 at 8 p.m., will take place at Stamps Auditorium in the Walgreen Drama Center. It will be open to University of Michigan faculty, staff, and students, with no admission charge. (It is closed to the general public). Sheng and Hwang will both be in attendance, along with the stage director and the conductor of the world premiere performances, Stan Lai and George Manahan, and representatives of SFO’s administration, including the general director-designate Matthew Shilvock.

The students have been preparing this piece since December with Kathleen Kelly, associate professor of music and conductor of opera. They began work with Professor Sheng earlier in February.

“We’re thrilled about this collaboration,” says Kelly. “A workshop of a new opera usually takes place in-house at an opera company. This opportunity has come our way due to the cooperative efforts of many people, chief among them Bright Sheng, Department of Voice Chair Stephen West, myself, and SFO Dramaturg Kip Cranna. Our students have the chance to learn a new piece with its creator, and be part of a professional-level process. Since new work is an increasingly large part of a young opera professional’s life, this kind of training is invaluable. And the stakes are high! This is the first time that the opera company staff will hear the piece all the way through, so our responsibility is major.”

Based on one of China’s greatest classical novels – as famous in China as Romeo and Juliet is in the West – Dream of the Red Chamber, written in the 18th century, recounts the love triangle between a young nobleman and two very different women: one his spiritual soul mate, the other a beautiful heiress.

Generally considered the greatest piece of Chinese literature ever written, Dream of the Red Chamber-published in multiple volumes and featuring hundreds of characters-was thought to be nearly impossible to adapt. However, Hwang, in a video featured on the SFO website, believes that he and Sheng have achieved “a distillation of the values of that culture and that history” and have created “an accessible and emotional experience for audiences.”

In addition to the workshop, several other educational events are scheduled, including a panel discussion about the commissioning and workshopping process, titled “From Page to Stage,” that is open to the public. The panel, featuring Sheng, Hwang, Kelly, and Cranna, takes place Thursday, February 18 from 4:45 – 6:15 p.m. at Stamps Auditorium in the Walgreen Drama Center and is free of charge.