Design for Bao Chi Costume, by Tim Yip
Received from San Francisco Opera at 5:45 p.m. last night, a carefully-worded press release about a cast change in their upcoming premiere of Bright Sheng's Dream of the Red Chamber:
SAN FRANCISCO (July 1, 2016)—San Francisco Opera announces a principal cast update for Dream of the Red Chamber, the new opera by Chinese-American composer Bright Sheng and co-librettist David Henry Hwang which receives its world premiere on September 10, 2016, with five additional performances through September 29. Japanese-American mezzo-soprano Irene Roberts, who is currently starring in the title role of Carmen, will now sing the role of Bao Chai, replacing previously announced mezzo-soprano Nian Wang who has determined that the vocal part was not a suitable fit for her voice and has withdrawn from the project.
Sacramento native Irene Roberts made her San Francisco Opera debut as Giulietta in Les Contes d’Hoffmann in 2013 and returned this summer to perform the title role of Carmen in a production by Calixto Bieito. During the 2015–16 Season, Roberts joined the ensemble of the Deutsche Oper Berlin where she appeared as Carmen, Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia and Cherubino in Le Nozze di Figaro. She also performed the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos with Palm Beach Opera and made her debut at London’s Wigmore Hall in recital with tenor Bryan Hymel and pianist Julius Drake. Past seasons have seen Roberts at the Metropolitan Opera (Le Nozze di Figaro and Parsifal), Palm Beach Opera, Lyric Opera of Kansas City and Atlanta Opera.
Roberts will join a cast of established and rising Asian singers in Dream of the Red Chamber, including Chinese tenor Yijie Shi (in the role of Bao Yu); South Korean soprano Pureum Jo (Dai Yu); South Korean mezzo-soprano Hyona Kim (Lady Wang); in her U.S. debut, Chinese contralto Qiulin Zhang (Granny Jia); Taiwanese soprano and Merola Opera Program alumna Karen Chia-ling Ho (Princess Jia); and Chinese-American mezzo-soprano and former San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow Yanyu Guo (Aunt Xue).
The Company also announced several new cast members for the work today. Tenor Alex Boyer and current San Francisco Opera Adler Fellows tenor Pene Pati and baritone Edward Nelson will perform the ensemble roles of Eunuchs and The Stone while a trio of current Adler Fellows—sopranos Amina Edris and Toni Marie Palmertree, and mezzo-soprano Zanda Švēde—will assume the ensemble roles of Handmaidens and The Crimson-Pearl Flower. Bay Area actor Randall Nakano will make his San Francisco Opera debut in the non-singing role of The Monk.
Based on one of the great classical novels of Chinese literature by 18th-century Q’ing dynasty writer Cao Xueqin, Dream of the Red Chamber will be brought to life by an all-star creative team of acclaimed Taiwanese director and playwright Stan Lai and designer Tim Yip, who is perhaps best known for his Oscar-winning art direction in Ang Lee’s 2000 film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
The announcement of new cast members is interesting and gives us some ideas of the shape of the opera; I'm wondering whether the Handmaidens and the Eunuchs will be latter-day Ping, Pang, and Pong, for example
But the big news is, of course, Nian Wang's withdrawal. You can't argue with a singer who says "not a good fit," and the chronological distance from the premiere, which is just a couple of months off, makes it likely that the announcement was held until the company was sure that they had a suitable replacement.
And I describe this as a carefully-worded press release because of the description of Wang's replacement: "Japanese-American mezzo-soprano Irene Roberts." It was apparent from the original cast announcement that San Francisco Opera had sought out Asian singers for the leads, which I thought wise, considering how common it is in show business in general to cast European-descended performers as Asian characters, a practice called "yellowface." I'm glad that the company was able to cast Roberts in this role, and at a late date, it could not have been easy to find a Asian replacement for Wang.