TAN DUN'S FIRST EMPEROR
New York Metropolitan Opera broadcast
Radio New Zealand, Concert FM
Sunday 11th of February 2007 at 3 pm
The story and background
The characters and cast
The cast with photographs
In 2006, New Zealand had the opportunity of seeing Wagner's Parsifal and Tan Dun's counterpart to Parsifal, namely Tea: a mirror of soul. Now we can hear (in some countries they can sit in cinemas and watch also) The First Emperor. Naturally it is about an emperor of China, namely Emperor Ch'in, the founder of the Ch'in dynasty in the 3rd century before the current era (BCE), after whom the name China was invented by foreign 'barbarians'. He united all the regions of China, and built the great wall. These two exploits are themes in the story in this opera. You will be hard put to find the name Ch'in on the list of characters, but it is there, as Qin (as written in their Pinyin alphabet).
When the Chinese began (in the 20th century) to use the alphabet to write their language, alongside their complicated system of 'characters', they did not ask the rest of the world to comment. My personal feeling is that Pinyin transcription should not be used outside China, because it can cause so much confusion among the uninitiated. Using the letter Q for ch is not helpful to speakers of other languages which use the Roman alphabet. The established Wade-Giles system for transcribing Chinese alphabetically was not entirely straightforward, either.
One of the cast in this opera still uses the English system for his name: Wu Hsing-kuo, instead of Wu Xingguo. Neither the hs nor the x tell us clearly what sound we should utter (Germans have it in their language, but it is not in English), though we can learn to pronounce it.
The name Tan Dun would have been T'an Tun in the past. The first T is aspirated (the apostrophe shows that there is a puff of breath after it); the second T is unaspirated, and it is not a d (which is a t with a voice-buzz added). Anyway, his name is not pronounced like "tan done" but like "ton tun" (with -u- as in "put"). This contortionist act also shows us what a crazy non-system English spelling is.
Never mind. We look forward to hearing the emperor Ch'in/Qin sung by the great tenor Do Ming Go (a Spanish-born Mexican).