JOURNEY OF THE BONESETTER'S DAUGHTER follows the creation of the San Francisco Opera's celebrated production of The Bonesetter's Daughter, composed by StewArt Wallace with a libretto by Amy Tan and based on her bestselling book of the same name. An ambitious, cross-cultural tour de force that brings together artists from China and the U.S, the opera tells a deeply moving story about the difficult but unbreakable bond between mothers and daughters inspired by Tan's own family history. Directed by David Petersen and produced by Monica Lam, JOURNEY OF THE BONE-SETTER'S DAUGHTER will premiere nationally on PBS on Mother's Day, Sunday, May 8, 2011 at 10:00 p.m. ET (check local listings).
Tan's libretto draws heavily on the tragic suicide of Tan's maternal grandmother, and explores the impact of the trauma on successive generations. "My grandmother was somebody who was forced into a subservient position," Tan says. "She was raped, and the only way she could gain her power was to kill herself." The film follows Tan as she explores her past, traveling with her half sisters to the home in China where her grandmother lived and died. As the opera production is mounted, Tan grapples with how best to capture and preserve the emotional truth of her family story in the drama unfolding on stage.
As in her earlier novels The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife, author Tan uses elements of her own life in The Bonesetter's Daughter to explore the immigrant experience and the ways in which both love and history can be lost in translation. The opera opens at a birthday party in San Francisco's Chinatown. Ruth (Zheng Cao), a young Chinese-American woman, has organized the celebration for her aging mother, LuLing (Ning Liang). But the party disintegrates when LuLing launches into a delusional tirade, an early sign of her Alzheimer's disease. LuLing's illness and the revelation that she has guarded family secrets since childhood prompt Ruth to begin a journey of discovery into her mother and grandmother's past.
The making of the opera spans two continents and artistic traditions - classicAl Western opera and traditional Chinese opera - and the film chronicles the extraordinary challenges of creating an ambitious new work of art. Tan's collaborators, American composer StewArt Wallace (Harvey Milk), and Chinese opera director Chen Shi-Zheng (Peony Pavilion), both bring their forcefully contemporary sensibilities to the production. The film follows Wallace as he travels to China to research its musical traditions. "I wanted to write the opera in my own voice, but to make it feel like China," Wallace says. "That was an easy thing to say; it was a harder problem to crack." Wallace integrates music written for traditional Chinese instruments into his score, but also brings some of China's best musicians to the San Francisco Opera to play alongside its full Western orchestra.
Chen Shi-Zheng, who immigrated to the United States from China as a young man, brings to the staging of The Bonesetter's Daughter a blend of traditional and contemporary influences. "I don't want this to be a Chinatown parade," Chen says. "I'm very interested in a new form of opera - a new American opera." Under his direction, Chinese acrobats tumble across the stage while abstract video projections create an ever-shifting visual backdrop for the unfolding drama.
The film captures the creative and technical challenges of mounting a new work, one with high emotional and artistic stakes. Tan and Chen struggle to reconcile their divergent stylistic interpretations of her autobiographical story. The Chinese and Western musicians collaborate despite their vastly different musical training. Tensions rise during daily rehearsals involving hundreds of singers, orchestra musicians and backstage personnel, as changes are made until moments before the curtain rises.
JOURNEY OF THE BONESETTER'S DAUGHTER shows the power of art to engage, inspire and transform. For the opera's talented and diverse creators, the collaboration tests cultural boundaries and takes enormous artistic risks to define anew both Western and Eastern operatic form. For Tan, the opera allows her to give voice to her grandmother's sacrifice, heal the trauma that so profoundly affected her mother, and deepen the complicated bond shared among these three generations of women.
Making the Film
Filmmakers Monica Lam and David Petersen traveled to China with librettist Amy Tan and composer StewArt Wallace to capture some of their creative process. Together with Tan and her half-sisters, they traveled to Shanghai and Chongming to explore the places where Tan's family history had unfolded. They also followed Tan's exploration of the sights and sounds of Hong Kong, one of the sources of inspiration for her writing. With composer StewArt Wallace, they journeyed to remote and beautiful parts of southern China where traditional Chinese music and instruments can still be heard, and to Beijing as he rehearsed with the Chinese musicians who played in the orchestra.
During rehearsals at the San Francisco opera house, the filmmakers were able to intimately observe the complex and dynamic operations of a world-class performing arts organization. From costume and set design to musical rehearsals and acrobat choreography sessions, the film follows the intensive process of realizing art on the grand stage.
Executive Producer: Fawn Ring
Director/Camera/Editor: David Petersen
Producer/Camera: Monica Lam
Executive Producer for CAAM: Stephen Gong
Executive Producer for ITVS: Sally Jo Fifer
A co-production of Outlier Films, LLC, the Center for Asian American Media, the Independent Television Service, and KQED San Francisco, with funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts, John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn, Franklin P. and Catherine H. Johnson, The Shenson Foundation and The Fleishhacker Foundation.
About the Opera's Creators
Born in the U.S. to immigrant parents from China, Amy Tan (Librettist) rejected her mother's expectations that she become a doctor and concert pianist. She chose to write fiction instead. Her novels include The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God's Wife, The Hundred Secret Senses, The Bonesetter's Daughter, and Saving Fish from Drowning, all New York Times bestsellers. She is also the author of a memoir, The Opposite of Fate, two children's books - The Moon Lady and Sagwa, The Chinese Siamese Cat - and numerous articles for magazines including The New Yorker, Harper's Bazaar, and National Geographic. Her work has been translated into 35 languages, from Spanish, French, and Finnish to Chinese, Arabic, and Hebrew.
Tan served as Co-producer and Co-screenwriter with Ron Bass for the film adaptation of The Joy Luck Club. She was the Creative Consultant for Sagwa, the Emmy-nominated PBS television series for children, which aired worldwide, including in the UK, Latin America, Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, and Singapore. Her New Yorker story, Immortal Heart, was performed on stages throughout the U.S. and in France. Tan appeared as herself in the animated series The Simpsons. Tan's other musical work for the stage is limited to serving as lead rhythm dominatrix, backup singer, and second tambourine with the literary garage band, the Rock Bottom Remainders, whose members include Stephen King, Dave Barry, and Scott Turow. In spite of their dubious talent, their yearly gigs have managed to raise over a million dollars for literacy programs.
Tan has lectured internationally at universities, including Stanford, Oxford, Jagielloniun, Beijing, and Georgetown, both in Washington D.C. and Doha, Qatar. Her essays and stories are found in hundreds of anthologies and textbooks, and are required reading in many high schools and universities. Tan is currently at work on a new novel.
Composer StewArt Wallace was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but grew up in Texas. The radical mix of jazz, blues, gospel, Tejano, rock and classical music there profoundly influenced him. He played in a rock and roll band and sang as a cantor in the synagogue.
At age twenty-eight, he had his first major premiere, Where's Dick? at Houston Grand Opera, initiating a long and fruitful collaboration with librettist Michael Korie. Harvey Milk, Wallace's fifth full-length opera and most widely known score, was commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera, New York City Opera and the San Francisco Opera. Other operas he has composed with librettist Michael Korie include Hopper's Wife and Kaballah, an abstract work sung in Hebrew, Aramaic, Medieval Spanish and German, and English.
Wallace has written music in every genre with performances throughout the world, including a trilogy for percussion soloist Evelyn Glennie, featuring Indonesian gongs and a toy piano. His Book of Five for the British amplified ensemble Icebreaker and the American Composers Orchestra, was performed in Vienna, the United Kingdom and Germany. Wallace's works include the ballet Peter Pan and film scores for documentary and feature films. Skvera for Electric Guitar and Orchestra was composed for "Guitar God" Marc Ribot and inspired by a trip to the Ukrainian shtetl his grandparents fled before the Russian Revolution.
A 2006 Guggenheim Fellow, Wallace has also received awards and commissions from the National Endowment for the Arts, New York Foundation for the Arts, Opera America, Meet the Composer, Mary Flagler Carey Trust. He was Music Alive Composer-in-Residence at the National Symphony, a fellow of the inaugural Institute for the Arts and Civic Dialogue at Harvard in 1998, and artist-in-residence at Princeton University at Toni Morrison's Princeton Atelier. His residencies at the MacDowell Colony and Yaddo, where he first met Amy Tan, were indispensable in the creation of The Bonesetter's Daughter opera.
Stage Director Chen Shi-Zheng, who was born and raised in China during the Cultural Revolution, studied traditional Chinese opera at Hunan Art School. He is now based in New York and works internationally as a stage and film director. In 1999, his landmark nineteen-hour production of the traditional Chinese opera The Peony Pavilion was hailed as one of the most important theatrical events of the twentieth century. The work had its Western premiere as the centerpiece of the Lincoln Center Festival. His recent "circus opera" Monkey: Journey to the West, an adaptation of a 16th century Chinese novel, was performed at the Manchester Festival, the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, the Spoleto Festival USA and Covent Garden.
Chen recently directed The Coronation of Poppea for the English National Opera as part of a complete Monteverdi cycle. Other Western operatic credits include Così fan tutte for the Aix-en-Provence Festival and Théâtre des Champs Elysées, and Dido and Aeneas for the Handel & Hadyn Society and the Spoleto Festival USA. Chen made his directorial debut in 1996 with The Bacchae for the China National Beijing Opera Company.
His first feature film Dark Matter won the Sundance Film Festival's Alfred P. Sloan Prize and was released in cinemas across the U.S. in Spring 2008.