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Amy Tan Takes Over

September 2, 2008

It's fascinating to see how an artist's involvement in a project can mutate over its development process.

While working on an article for the Los Angeles Times about San Francisco Opera's upcoming world premiere of The Bonesetter's Daughter, I've been curious to discover how Amy Tan's role vis-a-vis the creation of the new opera has evolved over time.

When composer Stewart Wallace (Harvey Milk) approached Tan, whom he'd been friends with since meeting the novelist at the Yaddo artists' colony in 1994, about adapting her 2001 novel The Bonesetter's Daughter into an opera, the novelist at first declined. Then she changed her mind when she realized she wouldn't have to recreate the novel on stage but could fashion something different based on the source material. (At least, that's the story that Tan and her cohorts involved in the project give out. I wouldn't be surprised if one of the main reasons the novelist decided to allow her book to be turned into an opera was because a Hollywood film deal fell through.)

Then, when Wallace's regular librettist became unavailable to work on the project with the composer owing to schedule conflicts (though again, who knows what really went on there) Tan took over the libretto-writing -- her first -- with Wallace.

Ultimately, however, Tan's involvement with the opera has gone way beyond writing the libretto. The novelist is playing an active role in the rehearsal process. She's coaching some of the singers to help them connect with the autobiographical elements of her narrative about three generations of Chinese women. She's even going as far as to tell one performer -- Zheng Cao, who plays Ruth, the main, quasi-Tan character in the story -- how to dress and wear her hair. "When Amy's around, I always have to dress up," Zheng told me last week when I visited the opera house to conduct interviews and watch rehearsals. She'd just been to the salon and had her hair straightened, also upon Tan's advice. "When she's not around, I can wear jeans."

The Bonesetter's Daughter has its premiere on September 13. My piece about the opera appears in the LA Times next weekend on September 7.

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