An Opera That Spans Generations, and Cultures

L to R: Zheng Cao, Ning Liang, Qian Yi. (Terrence McCarthy/

SAN FRANCISCO, September 22, 2008 - The three leads in the acclaimed opera The Bonesetter's Daughter stepped offstage to share their stories at a sold-out Asia Society program. Performers Zheng Cao, Ning Liang, and Qian Yi, all born in mainland China, spoke about the differences between Western and Chinese opera—in language, music, and movement—the mother-daughter relationships at the center of the opera, and their relations with their own mothers and grandmothers.

They also gave the audience a rare inside look at the painstaking, highly collaborative process of crafting Bonesetter's, which had its world premiere in San Francisco on September 13. The Asia Society program was the only chance for the Bay Area to hear and meet with the three divas offstage. Rachel Cooper, director of cultural programs and performing arts for Asia Society New York, moderated the discussion.

Adapted from the best-selling novel by beloved Bay Area author Amy Tan (who also wrote the libretto), the opera explores the complex bonds between mothers and daughters across three generations. In the tale, which moves back and forth between modern-day San Francisco and the Chinese countryside during the World War II, a troubled Chinese American woman learns the horrible secrets of her immigrant mother's past. In Tan's words, she wrote Bonesetter's to give voice to three women "who each have been voiceless in their own ways." The production is unmistakably American but has strong roots in China, incorporating the timbres and textures of Chinese music into the score.

Unusual for an opera, the three leads are all mezzo sopranos, even though composer Stuart Wallace wrote part of the score for a soprano—"and we still sold out," Zheng Cao quipped.

Also unusual was the remarkable collaboration between Wallace, Tan, and the three singers that went into the project. In near-constant collaboration with the singers, Wallace was revising the score almost to the end. Cao said, "It felt like all of us put this together."

The three stars forged close ties from the start. "In the very beginning when we had a rehearsal, we said, 'Oh, we are Charlie's Angels,'" said Ning Liang. "Oh no, the Supremes!" Cao joked.

The program was made possible through the generosity of Asia Society Northern California Board Member Iris Chan and Wells Fargo Bank.

Reported by Robert Bullock, Asia Society Northern California