Opera is a very Western art form. Born in Italy in the 1500s, it flourished in the royal courts and lavish theaters of Western Europe for centuries to come. In the 20th century, some of the greatest opera companies in the world were born in the United States, which continued European traditions with foreign and domestic singers. Today, the love of classical singing has spread across the world.
Unfortunately, in recent decades, opera has felt the need to “update” classic operas to appeal to young audiences, who they believe will not enjoy age-old settings and traditions. This is a tragically destructive trend, depriving established and potential young opera fans of the chance to embrace these masterful compositions in their original forms. The main reason for these changes is the goal of attracting audiences with something new and fresh, as well as the desire of companies, producers and directors to create something unique.
That’s why I was thrilled when I heard about the LA Opera’s performance of a contemporary opera, “On Gold Mountain.” As part of its 2021/2022 season, the opera company staged this production as an entry into its LA Opera Connects series in May. Instead of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion or another traditional Los Angeles theater, this opera was performed in the unique setting of an improvised outdoor stage in the gardens of the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. Adapted from a true story, this composition by Emmy-winning composer Nathan Wang and best-selling author Lisa See was a loving tribute to Chinese-American history in California and an entertaining blend of Western and Eastern music.
Coming to America
The libretto for “On Gold Mountain” was written by Lisa See, who based it on her own memoir of the same name. This author, who is one-eighth Chinese, based the story on the history and experiences of her own family who came to the United States three generations ago. Published in 1995, the book inspired an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution in 2001, as well as this opera. It’s also a valuable look at the experiences of the countless Chinese immigrants who came to California in the 19th century in search of “Gold Mountain.” Some artifacts of Miss See’s ancestry are on display at the Huntington Library, adding to the site’s relevance.
This story is linked to composer Nathan Wang, since his own parents immigrated from Shanghai, China to Los Angeles, where he was born. A prodigious pianist in his youth, Mr. Wang grew to become one of the most successful classical composers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. He has worked extensively in the Hollywood and Asian film industries, writing and directing scores for films, TV shows and video games for Steven Spielberg. He has also written extensively for the concert and opera stages. LA Opera commissioned him to write four original operas for their performance. The first of these was “On Gold Mountain”, which their Voices of California project commissioned and performed in 2000 as their first production.
This opera tells the story of Fong See, a Chinese boy who travels to the United States in search of his father, who has not sent any money or news to his family since he left for California in search of fortune. . The boy bids farewell to his beloved mother and child bride, vowing to find his father and make his fortune before returning. In America, Fong finds his father, a penniless gambler, whom he persuades to return to China. The Promised Land of Opportunity challenges the brave boy with prejudice right and left, but he works hard at countless odd jobs to earn enough money to open his own store. He meets a charming young American woman, Ticie Pruett, whose vision helps him grow his business. They quickly fall in love and decide to get married, despite current discrimination and miscegenation laws in Los Angeles. Against all odds, they raise a family of four children and Fong See becomes the wealthiest merchant in Chinatown. However, everything changes when he decides to return to China and re-enter the old traditions of the old country.
In a Chinese garden
This performance of “On Gold Mountain” was a collaboration between LA Opera Connects and the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens. In addition to the LA Opera Orchestra, musicians were recruited from the community, including many schools and young bands in the area. The large choir included singers from Voice of Love Chorus Los Angeles and LA Opera’s Opera Camp, as well as people of all ages from the community. The music mixes oriental sounds, provided by Asian instruments, with classical Western music.
The eight performances of this opera, presented over two weekends, took place in the Huntington Library’s Liu Fang Yuan, the Garden of Flowing Fragrance. Performances were extremely popular, with the second weekend selling out days in advance. Museum donors and opera aficionados were eager for this exclusive experience. Exploring the beautiful Botanical Gardens in the late afternoon was a rare opportunity, as the lush gardens usually close hours before sunset. Passing by beautiful Asian landscapes and Chinese architecture, including ornate pagodas, it felt like traveling to another country for this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The actual performance took place in an elevated courtyard in the gardens, where bleachers were set up for the public. The set was minimalist, consisting mainly of large wooden panels and screens, which served as both a backdrop and a shield between the audience and the wings. Along with a few simple props and sets, which the singers often moved around during the show, the visual experience was enriched by historical photographs of the See family, which were projected onto the panels. English and Chinese subtitles also projected on the backdrop made the performance enjoyable and relevant to everyone in the audience, which included many Chinese Americans. A balmy Southern California afternoon turned to a balmy evening as the moon rose over the opera house.
East meets West
Attending “On Gold Mountain” was an amazing experience. After the performance, the performers stood in the courtyard where they had performed and the audience could walk up to them to chat, express their appreciation and take photos. It was only the last moment of an intimate evening. Although I have no Asian heritage in my background, I felt like I was part of the story that the opera brought to life in this picturesque setting. The music suited the story and purpose of this work very well, being memorable, emotional and suitably Asian, but neither too classical nor too contemporary. The musical number that grabbed me the most was the trio between the three wives, each telling their own story of grief. The only number I didn’t like was the Matchmaker solo. Although performed very well, I found the lyrics to be inappropriate, with salacious meanings accentuated by suggestive choreography and body language. It was an unnecessary addition to an otherwise family-friendly job.
The overall production value was very high. Each singer was excellent, both in terms of singing and acting. The costumes and sets were effective, and the staging made good use of the reduced cast. By using the natural setting, the performance was more effective than it could have been in an indoor theater, no matter how elaborate the setting. My only criticism of the production was the caliber of the dancing. When the lead couple waltzed and the Fong See kids jitterbugged, the singers weren’t really ballroom dancing; they were just going back and forth. The terpsichorian abilities of singers are often underestimated, which is a shame, because I’m sure these singers could have danced much better if they had received more instruction.
When I spoke to Nathan Wang after the performance, he said there was talk of performing “On Gold Mountain” in conjunction with the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. I look forward to seeing what future productions LA Opera will bring to the community through its LA Opera Connects program. Hopefully more opera companies will tackle more contemporary operas that honor the history and traditions of opera while bringing something new and exciting to artists and the community. In the meantime, if you have the chance to see an opera written by Nathan Wang, I highly recommend you grab it. “On Gold Mountain” is a loving tribute to Chinese traditions, as well as to the spirit of Americanism.
The opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Epoch Times.