The San Francisco Opera will premiere Dream of the Red Chamber, adopted from Cao Xue-qin’s epic 120-chapter novel depicting the story of the ill-starred lovers Jia Bao-yu and Lin Daiyue. The show is a collaboration with the Chinese Heritage Foundation, which aims to preserve and promote Chinese heritage, culture, and history and, at the same time, to encourage innovation in the arts.
Since its publication more than two centuries ago, Dream of the Red Chamber has become one of the most popular novels in China abd with Chinese-speaking people living in the overseas. Though it has been translated into English several times, the book is not commonly known among Western readers. The novel is an 18th-century saga, the tale of a noble family that falls from grace. It is full of incredible detail of the social, cultural and spiritual life of the time.
The book was written in dribs and drabs: each new chapter circulated among family and friends, often in exchange for a meal and a pitcher of wine. Its style is a derivation from the period convention, a vast sprawling narrative, surreal and poignant, full of songs and poems. The female characters are especially strong. As Cao himself said: “Having made an utter failure of my life, one day I found myself in the midst of my poverty and wretchedness, thinking about the female companions of my youth.” The book amounts to over 2,500 pages, more than double the length of War and Peace.
All that said and in light of the premiere on September 10, I shall at least review the story. I might not be able to complete re-reading all five volumes but a review of the poems and doublets would be welcoming prerequisite to the show.