Two thousand two hundred years ago, China was divided into seven warring states. The state of Chin was the strongest and eventually conquered the other six states. After unifying the country, Chin Shi Huang established the first central government and called himself the First Emperor. He initiated many national projects such as standardizing the written word, currency and measurements, and several building projects. Two of his projects, the Great Wall of China and his tomb guarded by terra-cotta soldiers, are among the eight Wonders of the World. But behind all these imperial achievements, there is a tragic story of love, hate, and betrayal.
In a chamber in the Chin Palace, Gao Jianli is lying on his death bed with the Princess attending him. Since being captured he has refused to eat, drink, speak or open his eyes. The Priest asks the Emperor to relieve the Princess of this burdensome duty. She begs that her father give her one more chance and promise her that, if she can convince Jianli to live and compose the anthem, she can own Jianli. Her father does not understand but in desperation, agrees to the promise and leaves the room with the Priest. Having tried different methods, including seduction, and failed, Yue-yang tries to feed him from her own mouth. Gao Jianli is startled and accepts the food from her mouth. He takes more and more food from her. He has opened his mouth, eyes and heart. Gao Jianli takes her in his arms and they passionately make love. She complains that Jianli has hurt her legs. Miraculously, she gets up and walks, then runs. Hearing the shouts, the Emperor enters the room followed by General Wang, the High Priest and the Shaman. The Emperor is ecstatic to see his daughter walk again. The General is distressed that his betrothed has given herself to Gao Jianli. The High Priest realizes that his position of power is threatened by Gao Jianli. Yue-yang and Gao Jianli sing of the miracle of true and eternal love. The act closes with the Shaman singing of impending doom.
Anthem At a construction site of the Great Wall, slaves are laboring under the threat of whips. They are carting bricks, working at the kiln, and carrying bags of sand. The Great Wall winds endlessly into the background. In the foreground, Gao Jianli, looking healthy and blissfully in love, is giving a music lesson to Princess Yue-Yang. She sings a composition to him as he plays the zhu. Gao Jianli stops the lesson to listen to the Shaman and the slaves. The Shaman is lamenting the price of the empire: the rivers of blood, the mountains of bones and the cries of widows and orphans. The slave chorus sings a haunting song of the burden of the imperial dream. Gao Jianli is clearly touched by their music. Guards come in to drive away the Shaman and the slaves and make way for the Emperor and his Queen. Emperor Chin has come to remind the Princess of her filial and royal duties, and insists that she honor his pledge and marry General Wang. She refuses and threatens to commit suicide if forced to marry the General. Tearfully the Queen tries to reconcile father and daughter, but fails. Yue-yang storms out followed by her mother. Emperor Chin turns to Gao Jianli and asks him to give up the Princess, temporarily, for the good of the nation. He promises Jianli that the General will die in battle soon and then Yue-yang will be his. Jianli reluctantly agrees to wait. The Emperor reminds his friend to compose the sublime anthem. From the distance the slave chorus song returns, Gao Jianli is deeply moved and tells the Emperor that this beautiful song should be a part of the anthem. The Emperor replies that the laments of slaves cannot be part of an anthem that praises the Chin Empire.
Accession On the banks of the rushing Yellow River the ceremony for the imperial inauguration is set. The Emperor and his large entourage are present. The throne is at the top of a pyramid of steps. The Shaman is in a trance. She and the Eunuch are exchanging riddles. Gao Jianli, the newly-appointed High Priest, begins the official ceremony. He orders the burial of the terracotta army so that they may guard the royal ancestors. The Emperor begins to climb the pyramid. As he reaches the fifth step, the Shaman has a vision and announces that Princess Yue-yang has been strangled to death by General Wang for refusing to enter the wedding chamber. The Queen collapses and cries out for her daughter. Princess Yue-yang’s ghost appears and tells her father that in truth she killed herself as she was unable to sacrifice her love for Jianli for her country. She begs her father to protect her loved one. As the Emperor reaches the tenth step the Shaman announces General Wang’s suicide. His ghost appears and declares that his unwavering loyalty to the Emperor would never allow him to commit suicide. Gao Jianli has had him poisoned and Wang warns the Emperor that Gao still seeks revenge from the Emperor. The Emperor continues his lonely ascent with a very heavy heart. As he reaches the fifteenth step, Gao Jianli rushes up with his zhu, he is crazed and grief-stricken by the death of his beloved. He cannot continue to live with out Yue-yang and admits his guilt. The Emperor asks Gao Jianli to support him as a brother. Gao Jianli laughs madly and smashes his zhu. He regrets having composed the anthem and refuses to ever compose again. He bites off his tongue and spits it out at the feet of the Emperor. Realizing that it will be a slow and painful death, and out of his deep sense of love and pity for his shadow, the Emperor stabs Gao Jianli. He reaches his throne and finds that it is lonely and cold. The price of reaching the top has been too high. The soldiers hail the First Emperor. The glorious National Anthem of Chin begins, interwoven with echoes of the slave song and Shaman laments.
An Operatic Evolution — On the creation of The First Emperor
I believe it is extremely important that the subject of an opera be somewhat surrealistic in nature and possess the ability to span across the ages. Although, I wrote The First Emperor as an operatic tragedy, set two thousand years ago, 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. The moment the slave song becomes the anthem of the nation, it causes a question to ring quietly in my mind, will the war end? Is killing a way of keeping the peace?
My concept in creating The First Emperor is to fuse contrasting musical elements. It is to develop the “music counterpoints” to the counterpoints of different times, different styles, different cultures, and different languages. It is to realize my 1+1=1 music philosophy by using contrasting musical ideas to fortify the unification of music texture and music structure. The development and purpose of each section of the musical structure for The First Emperor are outlined below:
1. Music counterpoints of:
A. Romantic and Percussive
B. Avant-garde and classical
C. Chromatic and indeterminate pitch system.
2. Counterpoints of Chinese Opera and Western Opera traditions.
3. Counterpoints of different languages ( in the opening minutes, the two character mirror each other through singing and movements while a Peking Opera singer sings in Chinese and a Western mezzo soprano sings in English.
4. The simplicity of vocal style and the complexity of orchestrations.
5. The transformation of operatic structure.
A. Concerts within an opera: during every interlude and at curtain time, the orchestra goes on playing and vocalizing as a concert in order to emphasize the narrative of my orchestral theatre.
B. To remove the recitative. Through my interaction with young people, I understand that they prefer direct theatrical expression, thus recitative became slow and unnecessary in the musical development sections.
6. The old three colors from Xi-An:
A. black: tri-tone interval
B. white: the continuance of fourth
C. red: the highest note to the lowest
“The sounds he gets from the orchestra are a wonder and a major highlight throughout.”
–Mark Swed, The Los Angeles Times, December 23, 2006