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Encyclopedia > The First Emperor

The First Emperor is an opera with a libretto written in English by Tan Dun and Ha Jin, and music by Tan Dun. The opera received its world premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City on 21 December 2006, conducted by the composer. The New Opera in Oslo, Norway The Teatro alla Scala in Milan, Italy. ... A libretto is the complete body of words used in an extended musical work such as an opera, operetta, masque, sacred or secular oratorio and cantata, musical, and ballet. ... The English language is a West Germanic language that originates in England. ... Jīn Xuěfēi (Simplified Chinese: 金雪飞; Traditional Chinese: 金雪飛; born February 21, 1956) is a contemporary Chinese-American writer using the pen name Ha Jin (哈金). Ha Jin was born in Liaoning, China in 1956. ... Tan Dunn (pinyin: Tán Dùn, 譚盾; born August 18, 1957) is a Chinese composer, most widely known as the Grammy and Oscar award winning composer for the soundtracks of the movies Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero. ... The Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, seen from Lincoln Center Plaza A full house at the old Metropolitan Opera House, seen from the rear of the stage, at the Metropolitan Opera House for a concert by pianist Józef Hofmann, November 28, 1937. ... New York, NY redirects here. ... December 21 is the 355th day of the year (356th in leap years) in the Gregorian calendar. ... For the Manfred Mann album, see 2006 (album). ...



The protagonist is the real-life emperor Qin Shi Huang, who unified China with force, erected part of the Great Wall, and was buried with his terracotta army. The story of the opera is based on the Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian (c.145-90 BCE) and the screenplay of The Emperor’s Shadow by Wei Lu. The monarch known now as Qin Shi Huang (Chinese: ; pinyin: ; Wade-Giles: Chin Shih-huang) (November / December 260 BCE – September 10, 210 BCE), personal name Ying Zheng, was king of the Chinese State of Qin from 247 BCE to 221 BCE (officially still under the Zhou Dynasty), and then... The Great Wall in the winter The Great Wall of China (Traditional Chinese: ; Simplified Chinese: , pinyin: Wànlǐ Chángchéng; literally The long wall of 10,000 Li (里)¹) is a Chinese fortification built from the 5th century BC until the beginning of the 17th century, in order to protect... The Terracotta Army (Traditional Chinese: ; Simplified Chinese: ; pinyin: ; literally soldier and horse funerary statues) or Terracotta Warriors and Horses is a collection of 8,099 life-size Chinese terra cotta figures of warriors and horses located near the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor (Chinese: ; pinyin: ). The figures were discovered... The Records of the Grand Historian or the Records of the Grand Historian of China (Chinese: 史記; pinyin: ; Wade-Giles: Shih-chi; literally Historical Records), written from 109 BCE to 91 BCE, was the magnum opus of Sima Qian, in which he recounted Chinese history from the time of the mythical... Sima Qian Si Ma Qian (司馬遷) (c. ...

Tan Dun was first approached by the Met in 1996 to write an opera. After seeing the film The Emperor's Shadow he settled on the theme of the First Emperor. Zhang Yimou, the production's stage director, had worked with Tan Dun on the movie "Hero" that also deals with emperor Qin, albeit at an earlier time. The world premiere production was estimated to cost in excess of US$2 million.[1] In preparation, Met staff was instructed in Chinese, and workshops in the development of the opera were held in Shanghai, in part as a cost-saving measure. Eagerly anticipated, the opera has been described as "a high-stakes, cross-cultural gamble".[1] Tan Dun noted in regard to working in the operatic form: English release of The Emperors Shadow. ... Zhang Yimou (Simplified Chinese: ; Traditional Chinese: ; pinyin: ;  ) (born November 14, 1951) is an internationally acclaimed Chinese filmmaker and one-time cinematographer. ... This article or section does not adequately cite its references or sources. ... This article or section does not adequately cite its references or sources. ...

“Opera will no longer be a Western form, as it is no longer an Italian form.”[2]


Act I: "Shadow"

Scene 1. The traditional music at the court displeases the Emperor; he envisions a new anthem that glorifies his rule. He believes that his childhood friend, the composer Gao Jianli, should be the person to compose the anthem. Jianli lives in Yan, a state that he has not yet conquered, and he orders his General to subjugate Yan and to get Jianli. As a reward for a victory, the Emperor promises his crippled daughter, Princess Yueyang, to the General. State of Yan (small seal script, 220 BC) Yan (Pinyin: yān, simplified Chinese/traditional Chinese: 燕) was a state during the Western Zhou, Spring and Autumn and Warring States Periods in China. ...

Scene 2. The General is successful, and Jianli is brought before the Emperor. Although the Emperor greets Jianli with friendship, Jianli is enraged and rejects him: his village was destroyed, and his mother was killed. He would rather die than compose an anthem for the emperor. Princess Yueyang admires his bravery.

Scene 3. The Princess convinces the Emperor to hand Jianli over to her if she is able to convince him to live on and write the anthem. Jianli refuses to eat, but when the Princess feeds him from her own mouth, his resistance is broken. They fall in love. The Princess’ deformity vanishes, and she can walk normally. The Emperor who is happy to see her cured soon recognizes the cause. He wants to kill Jianli for violating his daughter, but hesitates at this point to get his anthem.

Act II: "Anthem"

Scene 1. As Jianli instructs Princess Yueyang in music, he hears the slaves sing while they build the Great Wall. The Emperor appears and demands that his daughter honor his promise of marriage to General Wang Bi. Yueyang refuses; she would rather kill herself. The Emperor schemes asking Jianli to give her up temporarily. He expects the General to be killed in battle, and Jianli would be free afterwards to have his daughter. Jianli agrees and will complete the anthem. Wang Bi was a scholar of the Yi Jing (also known as I Ching). ...

Scene 2. At the imperial inauguration the Emperor encounters the ghost of Yueyang: she had committed suicide as she could not sacrifice her love for the benefit of the country. Next he meets the ghost of General Wang Bi telling him that he was poisoned by Jianli and warning him of Jianli’s vengeance. As the Emperor ascends towards his throne, Jianli emerges. Insane with grief about his lover’s death, he bites off his tongue and spits it out at the Emperor. The Emperor strikes him down to spare him a slow death. He moves on to his throne and now hears the anthem for the first time. It is the slaves’ song. He realizes that this is Jianli's revenge.

First performances and reviews

The stage director of the first production was Chinese film director Zhang Yimou. The sets were designed by Fan Yue, with choreography devised by Dou Dou Huang and costumes created by Emi Wada. The film director, on the right, gives last minute direction to the cast and crew, whilst filming a costume drama on location in London. ... Zhang Yimou (Simplified Chinese: ; Traditional Chinese: ; pinyin: ;  ) (born November 14, 1951) is an internationally acclaimed Chinese filmmaker and one-time cinematographer. ... Emi Wada , born March 18, 1937 in Kyoto Prefecture) is a renowned Japanese costume designer. ...

In general, the opera has received negative reviews[3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8]. Despite the negative critical reception, all of the subsequent performances through the 23 January 2007 remained sold out. One article has suggested revisions to the opera.[9] January 23 is the 23rd day of the year in the Gregorian calendar. ... 2007 (MMVII) is the current year, a common year starting on Monday of the Gregorian calendar and the Anno Domini era. ...

Some have criticized the opera as promoting the Chinese government and its dictatorial regime.[10][11]


Premiere, 21 December, 2006
(Tan Dun)
Emperor Qin tenor Plácido Domingo
Princess Yueyang, Emperor Qin's daughter soprano Elizabeth Futral
Gao Jianli, musician lyric tenor Paul Groves
General Wang Bi bass Hao Jiang Tian
Shaman mezzo soprano Michelle DeYoung
Chief Minister baritone Haijing Fu
Yin-Yang Master, official geomancer Beijing opera singer Wu Hsing-Kuo
Mother of Yueyang mezzo soprano Susanne Mentzer
Soldiers, guards, slaves, etc

Tan Dunn (pinyin: Tán Dùn, 譚盾; born August 18, 1957) is a Chinese composer, most widely known as the Grammy and Oscar award winning composer for the soundtracks of the movies Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero. ... In music, a tenor is a male singer with a high voice. ... José Plácido Domingo Embil (born January 21, 1941[1]), better known as Plácido Domingo, is a world-famous Spanish operatic tenor. ... Look up soprano in Wiktionary, the free dictionary. ... Elizabeth Futral is an American coloratura soprano who has won acclaim throughout the United States as well as in Europe, South America, and Japan. ... A bass (or basso in Italian) is a male singer who sings in the deepest vocal range of the human voice. ... A mezzo-soprano (meaning half soprano in Italian) is a female singer with a range usually extending from the A below middle C to the A two octaves above (i. ... Baritone (French: baryton; Deutsch: Bariton; Italian: baritono) is most commonly the type of male voice that lies between bass and tenor. ... Geomancy (from the Latin geo, Earth, mancy prophecy) is a method of divination to interpret markings on the ground or how handfuls of dirt land when you toss them. ... Beijing opera or Peking opera (Simplified Chinese: ; Traditional Chinese: ; pinyin: ) is a kind of Chinese opera which arose in the mid-19th century and was extremely popular in the Qing Dynasty court. ...


  1. ^ a b Lois Morris and Robert Lipsyte, "The Met's Way Out-of-Town Tryout", New York Times, 14 May 2006, (accessed 7 December 2006)
  2. ^ Statement by Tan Dun
  3. ^ Anthony Tommasini, "A Majestic Imperial Chinese Saga Has Its Premiere at the Met", New York Times, 12 December 2006
  4. ^ Alex Ross, "Stone Opera: Tan Dun’s The First Emperor at the Met", The New Yorker, 8 January 2007
  5. ^ Jay Nordlinger, "A ‘First Emperor' With Lessons To Learn" The Sun (New York), 26 December 2006 (accessed 3 January 2007)
  6. ^ Peter G. Davis, "Cold fusion". New York magazine, 8 January 2007.
  7. ^ David Patrick Stearns, "'The First Emperor': Hearing echoes at the opera", Philadelphia Inquirer, 7 January 2007.
  8. ^ James Fenton, "Featherlight opera". The Guardian, 13 January 2007.
  9. ^ Justin Davidson, "Can the 'Emperor' strike back?". New York Newsday, 14 January 2007.
  10. ^ Benjamin Ivry, "The Emperor's New Libretto" New York Sun, 18 December 2006, accessed 6 February 2007
  11. ^ Zhang Tianliang, " The First Emperor Promotes Communist Party Culture", Epoch Times, 18 January 2007 accessed 6 February 2007

External links

  • Metropolitan Opera official website
  • Tan Dun's official website

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