Tan Dun's Ghost Opera: A Review of the Recording

(Nonesuch Records; Kronos Quartet; Wu Man [pipa] )

by Lon W. Chaffin

Ghost Opera is probably the most intriguing work I've heard in quite some time.  As with most theatrical pieces though, I believe a vital part is absent when it is experienced only from the audio recording.  I'm confident the visual aspect could only serve to heighten the drama and intensify the emotional impact.  Since a full production is not within my grasp, the audio recording will have to suffice, and I must say, it does a lot more than "suffice".  It goes a long way in painting the visual images in my mind as I listen.

The opening sound of water in Act I is very soothing and draws me into the piece very quickly.  It seems to have an unusual calming, settling effect which is further enhanced by the introduction of the strings playing a Bach chorale.  This atmosphere, for lack a better phrase, could be "habit-forming."

A harsh reality interrupts the calm as the bowed gong and voices of ancient monks enter.  Suddenly we're transported to another place -- one which is eerie, unsettling, and almost evil sounding.   Even though the water continues to be heard, it seems to have lost its magic.  It  can't overcome that sense of darkness that just invaded.  As a stark contrast to that recurring darkness, the folk song, sung by a solo female voice, gives the impression of melancholy innocence.  The mood at this point is very compelling, but is lost with the introduction of the Shakespeare text.

There are very few moments in this piece I feel a need to question, but a couple do exist.  When the Shakespeare text is spoken, the rising and falling inflection of the voice and tremolo effects are extremely humorous.  Every time I hear it, the magic of the moment is lost to me and I fight the urge to chuckle.  If that is the intention of the composer, he was successful.  I've pondered this section for some time and it's purpose still escapes me.

The rhythmic section at the end of the first Act does an effective job of giving forward motion, propelling us onward.  Although its momentum eases a bit at the very end, it still seems to push us into Act II.

The use of the Bach again to start the second Act seems to give us some assurance and stability.  It has a focusing, centering effect that brings us back to a more comfortable reality.  The contrasting Earth Dance that ensues is very rhythmic, although not symmetrically metered.  It's playfulness is appealing -- it's fun.  There are moments that seem a little too much like a rodeo dance or "hoe down," especially when the voices begin "hootin' an' hollerin'."  These seem out place to me (or maybe I've just lived in Texas too long).  The section at the end of Act II, with the more rubato Pipa solo, is an effective contrast and effectively brings us back down to a level where Act III begins.

There's a strangely pleasing mixture to open Act III.  First we hear the folk song on the solo pipa followed by the Bach again in the strings.  We then get a combination of both which creates something entirely different.  This Act is relatively short and segues into Act IV.

We are introduced to two other natural objects in this Act -- stone and metal.  These are a sharp contrast (no pun intended) to the previously used natural object, water.  They are used in various ways to produce a natural, earthy, somewhat primitive rhythmic atmosphere.  The pipa, strings and voices are even used as rhythm instruments.  The overall color is quite intriguing.  Another compelling aspect, that may seem trivial to some, is the effect created by the stereo recording techniques.  Generally, a stereo recording of a live performance somewhat captures the reverberant ambiance of the room in which it is recorded.  The section here in Act IV goes beyond that to give us a dialogue between stones.  The separation created by the recording allows us to hear two separate stone rhythms in counterpoint -- very nice!

A gong marks the transition into Act V, the final Act.  A haunting, ghostly atmosphere takes center stage.  We hear a "little girl," playing bells and singing a lament for another little girl whose parents have been lost.  Shakespeare is quoted again (with those curiously humorous inflections), a large paper installation is heard falling into place and sounds of rustling paper, Bach, and gongs in water all mingle and fade into the silence.