Cultivating a taste for Tea: A Mirror of Soul

Soprano Nancy Allen Lundy has performed the lead role in almost every production of Tan Dun’s acclaimed opera—and she’ll sing here, too

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      Nancy Allen Lundy has the rare distinction of having been screamed at in the middle of a performance by Tan Dun—and it’s a memory she treasures.

      The occasion was an otherwise routine mounting of the Chinese conductor and composer’s multimedia production Orchestra Theatre IV: The Gate, which looks at three tragic heroines. Lundy was playing the Shakespearean character Juliet, who, as we know, comes to a sad and lonely end.

      “All of us are in purgatory, and we have to talk to the conductor, who is the god,” she explains in a telephone interview from her rented Mount Pleasant apartment. “And Tan Dun is the conductor, of course. We have to tell him our story, and at one point I’m ready to mime killing myself with a knife. I’ve got the thing up in the air, and I’m just going to bring it down, and Tan Dun over there on the podium goes, ‘Nooooooooo!’ And this he’d never done before. I’d sung it a thousand times with him and he’d never done it once before until this one time, in performance. It was a little disconcerting, but perfect, and he did it every time after that.”

      The composer’s intuitive response to Lundy’s theatrical knifeplay is one indication of his deep regard for the soprano’s vocal powers—and so, too, is the fact that she’s been cast in several of his works ever since the two first met, in theatre innovator Peter Sellars’s 1998 production of the Peking Opera–inspired Peony Pavilion.

      Most importantly, she’s sung the role of Princess Lan in almost every production of Tan’s opera Tea: A Mirror of Soul, and she’ll reprise that part when Vancouver Opera stages that profoundly mythopoetic work at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre over the next few days. Advance press for the run suggests that Tan created the role for Lundy, but the singer graciously suggests otherwise.

      “He used to work with another soprano, and he really did sit down and find out what weird things she could do with her voice, and then he wrote exactly that in the score,” she explains. “But for this role he wanted to appeal to the real opera world, so he just kind of wrote a real bel canto style of singing, and range of singing, for it. So a lot of different sopranos could sing this one.”

      They haven’t, though, and so this staging of Tea: A Mirror of Soul is a rare opportunity to hear one of Tan’s greatest interpreters star in a work that’s arguably even more accessible than his widely regarded score for the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The opera draws on a variety of sources, most notably its composer’s research into the tea-ceremony cultures of China and Japan. In part, it involves the quest of Prince Seikyo and Princess Lan for a fabled and miraculous book of tea lore, philosophy, and incantations. It’s also a tragic love story: as in Orchestra Theatre IV, Lundy’s character dies, but not before she gets to enact one of the most luminous love scenes in recent opera history.

      “Yesterday, we decided that the second act takes place in a forest,” she says of rehearsals for the work, which here will be conducted by Jonathan Darlington. “The prince and the princess come together to get this book of tea. They’ve been travelling for years and years, and even though they’ve been betrothed to each other they have not consummated their relationship. But they find this beautiful forest, and they decide to make love. They can’t wait anymore. And some of the sounds that you’ll hear are kind of like sticks being broken in a forest, as you’re walking through.…It’s really atmospheric and beautiful.”

      Those sounds are only a few of the innovative textures Tan has worked into Tea: A Mirror of Soul’s score. Joining the singers on-stage will be three female percussionists, whose job is to create elemental sounds that play off the alchemical and transformative concerns of the text. According to Lundy, it’s a ploy that pays big theatrical as well as sonic dividends.

      “The first act is all water,” she explains. “So there are big bowls of water with lights shining through the bottom of them, and the percussionists play the surface of the water with cups, and they splash. There’s a strainer, like a pasta strainer, and they pick it up and it splashes down so that it sounds like rain. It’s lovely.

      “The second act is all paper. There are giant pieces of paper hanging from the flies, and they hang down about, I don’t know, 20 feet. And they swing it back and forth to make a rushing noise with it. Sometimes it’s soft, sometimes it’s kind of violent. They hit the paper with mallets; they blow paper, like you’re blowing grass; they crumple the paper; they shake the paper.

      “And the third act is all stone and ceramics. The girls have flowerpots, different-sized flowerpots set up, and they hit them with mallets. And the men’s chorus actually plays a whole lot of stones, these river rocks that are kind of rounded, and they smack them together really fast. It’s cool, and it’s beautiful.”

      In other words, this innovative work—a perfect fit, one would think, for Vancouver’s multicultural audience—is anything but a conventional opera. Lundy agrees, and hopes that it will draw new listeners to the theatre.

      “If anybody is interested in seeing an opera for the very first time, this would be a very welcoming introduction because of the different sounds we make,” she says, before noting that Tan’s work is as far as you can get from the 19th-century classics. “We don’t always sound like Brunhild when we sing this piece,” she adds, laughing. “This music is very pure, and the feeling is very pure.”

      Vancouver Opera presents Tea: A Mirror of Soul at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Saturday, Tuesday, Thursday, and next Saturday (May 4, 7, 9, and 11).