Two thousand two hundred years ago, China was divided into seven warring states. After unifying the country, Chin Shi Huang established the first central government and called himself the First Emperor.
He built the Great Wall of China and his tomb was guarded by terra-cotta soldiers, both among the eight Wonders of the World. But behind all these imperial achievements, there is a tragic story of love, hate, and betrayal.
“Although I wrote The First Emperor as an operatic tragedy set two thousand years ago,” says Tan Dun, “I believe that
it provides relevant metaphors for contemporary societies. At the end of the opera, when the First Emperor gains the ultimate power and conquers the land, he loses everything as a human…”
Counterpoint is woven throughout the opera, contrasting the Romantic and Percussive, the avant-garde and classical, the vocal and instrumental, and the opera of China and the West.
“I have studied the ancient Chinese operatic traditions and have thought about how all opera can be evolutionary and revolutionary,” Tan Dun adds. “The purpose of evolution and revolution in contemporary opera, both musically and culturally, is not to destroy or rebel against traditions, but to draw on the traditions and revitalize the varied and sometimes opposing cultural concepts of ‘new and old’ and ‘east and west,’ resulting in a unique and new operatic language.”