Amy Tan Discusses Her New Career As a Librettist

On Sept. 13, the San Francisco Opera will premiere "The Bonesetter's Daughter," an opera based on Amy Tan's 2001 novel. Tan's libretto tells the tale of a troubled Chinese-American who, led by a ghost, travels into her immigrant mother's past and unearths their family's devastating secret history. Influenced by their research in China, Tan and composer Stewart Wallace created an American opera with Chinese roots. Tan spoke to NEWSWEEK's Vibhuti Patel in her New York loft. Excerpts:

Patel: What is " The Bonesetter ' s Daughter " about?
Tan: It's about inheritance. At the heart of the story is the secret tragedy of my own family. Precious Auntie's character is emotionally based on my grandmother; LuLing is inspired by my mother, and Ruth, the writer, is like me. My grandmother's terrible tragedy of rape, suicide and voicelessness was passed down like DNA through generations. I've changed that past by reclaiming it.

Why turn it into an opera?
I'd had film offers that I rejected because it's a long time away from writing. But my friend Stewart Wallace badgered me, saying this must be an opera. I have deep appreciation of music—I had 15 years of classical piano, I go to the symphony more than to the movies. So I reimagined the story to make it dramatic.

What was that process like?
The story drives the opera, but it's all about music onstage. Stewart and I worked together, discussing the story, breaking it down structurally. By the time I wrote the libretto, it was clear that only what is absolutely essential gives power; too many words would dilute it. I'd say, "I want to include this notion of guilt or anger." He'd say, "I'll have this in the music." We cut out everything that could be done by the music.

So you " reimagined " the novel by paring it down to the story of the three women?
As librettist, my job was to know the affecting emotions, and because I'd created the original story, I knew when we evoked the wrong emotion. When Stewart wrote angry, strident music for LuLing, I said, "No, it's more a sadness at her inability to get that across."

Tell me about your research trips to China.
We were in villages, hearing songs that an isolated community has sung historical ly. It was exciting to watch Stewart's ears and mind opening up as he realized these people hold the key to the drama of China. He took elements from their music and transformed them into his vocabulary.

For a Chinese-American, such visits must be very meaningful.
The last trip I made, I saw for the first time the island where my grandmother went to play mah-jongg at the invitation of the second wife of the man who raped her. I saw the room where she lived after being forced to become a concubine, and where, a year later, after giving birth to my uncle, she killed herself, with my then 9-year-old mother at her side. I had a feeling of being in a prison.

What ' s your hope for the opera?
Part of it has been fulfilled already, as I've had this amazing musical experience. If people respond enthusiastically, I'll be grateful. But even terrible reviews cannot diminish its success for me personally. It will hurt, but I won't regret doing what's been so fulfilling.