Placido Domingo
Placido Domingo as Emperor Qin in "The First Emperor." Photo courtesy of Metropolitan Opera

Opera shines with stars

By Brooks Robards - February 8, 2007

Chinese history meets American opera at the Capawock Theatre in Vineyard Haven on Sunday, Feb. 11. The occasion is a star-studded film version of "The First Emperor," featuring the celebrated Spanish tenor Placido Domingo. The performance was filmed live at the Metropolitan Opera on Jan. 13, in a $2 million co-production with the Los Angeles Opera that has been touted as the Met's most spectacular since "War and Peace."

In addition to Mr. Domingo, other featured singers in the 190-minute English performance include soprano Elizabeth Futral, tenor Paul Groves, and bass Hao Jiang Tian. Chinese-American Composer Tan Dun, known to American filmgoers for his Oscar-winning "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" score, created and conducted the opera, which is based on the story of Emperor Qin Shi Huang.

During his 11-year reign, Qin unified China, built the Great Wall, and created the army of terra cotta warriors who guarded his subterranean tomb near Xian. The role of Emperor Qin is the first Mr. Domingo, 65, has created in 38 years of singing at the Met.

Fifth-generation director Chinese Zhang Yimou, whose recent films include "House of Flying Daggers" and "Hero," filmed the production. Ha Jin, who won the National Book Award for his 1999 novel "Waiting," co-wrote the libretto with Tan, and Emi Wada, who won an Oscar for her work in Japanese director Kurosawa's "Ran," designed the 400 costumes.

The libretto of "The First Emperor" follows the exploits of Emperor Qin (260-210 B.C.), his crippled daughter Yueyang (Ms. Futral), and the emperor's childhood friend Gao Jianli (Mr. Groves), a composer. Qin wants Gao to create a national anthem for the unified China he has built, but the alienated Gao, who lives in Yan, a province Qin's army has not yet conquered, doesn't want to help his old friend.

To accomplish his goal, Qin promises the hand of his daughter to General Wang (Hao Jiang Tian), if the general will subdue the province. The general succeeds, but Yueyang falls in love with Gao, who has been captured, enslaved, and brought to court.

The defiant Gao refuses to compose an anthem for the emperor and goes on a hunger strike. Yueyang persuades her father to give Gao to her if she can get him to eat again and compose the anthem. When the emperor discovers the two are lovers, he becomes enraged.

In the opera's grand finale, Emperor Qin is inaugurated, but his daughter commits suicide rather than marry General Wang. Her lover Gao also dies, and the emperor finally hears the chorus sing the haunting national anthem, inspired by the slaves building the Great Wall.

Using such traditional Asian instruments as drums and waterphones as well as elements from Peking opera, composer Tan Dun fuses Chinese music with western opera influences to create an exotic musical mix in "The First Emperor." Viewers familiar with cellist Yoyo Ma's "Silk Road" series will appreciate this ambitious attempt to blend eastern and western musical traditions.

"The First Emperor,"
Sunday, Feb. 11, 2 pm.
"Eugene Onegin,"
Sunday, March 11, 2 pm.
"Barber of Seville,"
Sunday, April 8, 2 pm.
"Il Trittico,"
Sunday, May 13, 2 pm.

All high-definition operas shown at the Capawock, Main Street, Vineyard Haven.
Tickets are $18 or $15 for seniors, children, and students. Box office hours: 6:30 to 8 pm on weekdays and 6:30 to 9:30 pm on weekends.

Brooks Robards is a poet, author, and former college film instructor. She frequently contributes stories on art, film, and poetry to The Times.