Journey of a Bonesetter’s Daughter: Making of an Opera

by | September 24, 2013 at 5:46 PM | Cinema Asian America, Xfinity On Demand

David Peterson’s "Journey of a Bonesetter’s Daughter."

This month, Cinema Asian America on Xfinity On Demand presents David Petersen’s riveting behind-the-scenes documentary, “Journey of a Bonesetter’s Daughter.” Journey follows the creation of the San Francisco Opera’s celebrated production of  ‘The Bonesetter’s Daughter,’ composed by Stewart Wallace with a libretto by bestselling novelist Amy Tan. Based on Tan’s book of the same name, the opera is an ambitious, cross-cultural tour de force that brings together artists from China and the U.S. to tell the deeply moving story of Tan’s family history.

The film captures in cinema vérité style the creative and technical challenges of mounting a new work, one with high emotional and artistic stakes. Tan and opera director Chen Shi-Zheng struggle to reconcile their divergent interpretations of her autobiographical story while the Chinese and western musicians collaborate despite their vastly different musical training. Tensions rise during daily rehearsals involving hundreds of singers and stagehands, and Journey captures it all, showing the power of art to engage, inspire and transform. Director David Petersen, and executive producer Fawn Ring and producer Monica Lam discussed their experience making the film.

Journey of a Bonesetter’s Daughter is available to Comcast subscribers for free, through a partnership with the Center for Asian American Media.

What drew you to making a “process” film – one that peeks behind the curtain at the making of an artistic endeavor? What told you that the story behind the scenes of The Bonesetter’s Daughter would be just as, or perhaps more interesting than the story on stage?

FR: The main draw for me was the connection between Amy’s personal story and the art, because her novel, The Bonesetter’s Daughter, drew heavily on her family history. When Amy took on the role of librettist (after much urging from her friend, composer Stewart Wallace) her charge was to transform this personal story into an opera, which for her was tackling a new artistic form. I imagined a multi-layered film — the process of creating art and expanding into a new medium, and all of the challenges that come along with that, yes, but also exploring the deeply personal nature of the work itself. Because the fundraising took time, as it always does, we came later to the process than I’d hoped — most of the opera had already been written — so the strongest footage was gathered in China and during the mounting of the production in San Francisco.

ML: As an Asian American growing up in the United States, Amy Tan’s novels were a kind of road map for me. To me, her writing illuminated the collision of two massive worlds – the Chinese world, cloaked in tradition and power, and the American world, dressed in sassy, new, enlightened attitudes. I always loved how Amy’s writing wove together the wisdom of her mother and grandmother with the rebellious spark and jaundiced eye of an American teenager. When the opportunity to make a documentary about Amy’s creative process presented itself, I had no hesitation. If the process of creating a story was anything like the finished novels, I knew it would be an intense, emotional, and at times, wrenching ride. I knew I’d be challenged to feel deeply and learn. That an opera was in the making was even more enticing – it’s an infinitely more visual and auditory medium than a book.

DP: As a documentary filmmaker, I’m very drawn to self-contained communities outside the societal norm. I’ve made films about the community of a diner, small town, an artist colony, and storefront church, so the closed world of artists trying to stage a modern opera seemed a perfect fit for me. In fact, I met composer Stewart Wallace while making a film about The MacDowell Colony, an artist colony that provides work spaces and community for writers, visual artists, and composers engaged in serious work. In that film, capturing the artistic process was essential, and since Stewart often sang all the parts to his opera scores in his studio at MacDowell, he had a very cinematic presence. Opera itself is also inherently dramatic, so Stewart’s writing process worked well for that first film. We got along so well, that later Stewart suggested I work with executive producer Fawn Ring about making a longer documentary about the opera. I was so intrigued by its beginnings in that studio that I decided to follow the making of the opera from China to the stage. I thought that once the music left that cabin in the woods — the challenges of having Chinese acrobats, musicians, and singers work with a western orchestra, staging Amy Tan’s personal story, and try to make it into a cross-cultural, modern opera — that could make a fascinating film.

I knew that Amy Tan wrote the novel The Bonesetter’s Daughter, upon which the opera is based, in a fury shortly after her mother died. She based much of the story on the trauma of her grandmother’s rape, and how that trauma got passed down to Amy’s mother and finally to her. So staging this story into an opera had tremendous personal meaning for Amy. Though the story was still a work of fiction, I felt that the process of having singers inhabit the characters on paper might become very emotional for Amy. I never expected how much impact the staging of the opera would have on everyone associated with the production. Opera is a purely emotional art form, and the intimate nature of this mother/daughter story affected the cast, crew, the composer, and three of us involved in making the documentary. We knew we had to travel with Amy and her half-sisters to the house on Chongming Island where Amy’s grandmother committed suicide. This was the scene of the trauma that got passed down to everyone in Amy’s family, the crucible where this opera, in effect, began, and that happened thousands of miles away from the stage.

As viewers will see, there was a fair amount of creative friction between the many parties involved in the opera, including Amy Tan, director Chen Shi-Zhen and the San Francisco Opera’s General Director. These conversations became central to the documentary’s larger themes of creativity and cross-cultural collaboration. Was there a strategy for how you documented these conflicts, and how you decided what to keep in the film?

FR: The strategy was for David and Monica to be present with their cameras and to capture as much of the reality as possible. We knew problems and challenges, as well as moments of pleasant discovery for the artistic team, would arise — it’s part of any new production. The question was how much access we would really have. We were asked to leave the room at times and we knew more was going on than we were allowed to capture, but all things considered, given the enormous amount of pressure on every member of the artistic and production team as opening night approached, we had access to many deeply human moments that simply unfolded before us. Deciding what to use in the film was more difficult. David and Monica combed through hours of footage, and David found and constructed the important scenes. He ended up gunning for a 90 minute version of the film because so much was there, but the broadcast constraint was to produce a 60, so we had to make difficult choices. My goal had always been to tell the story as truthfully as possible and to avoid judging anyone. I didn’t want to sensationalize or over-emphasize the tough moments. I was acutely aware that just one cutaway could skew the point of view. In the end, I think we all would have been happier with a 75 minute film (I personally wanted to see more of the opera performance) but within the time we had, I think we managed to convey fairly the difficulties and joys of the creative process.

ML: I wanted to be fair to everyone involved in the making of the opera. It’s sometimes hard to remember, when we’re in the throes of a creative conflict (as filmmakers, too) that conflict can be productive, that conflict itself can be creative. For me, it was important to remember that everyone involved cared deeply about the opera. If there were creative tensions, it was not necessarily because of egos (although sometimes that is a factor), but instead because people cared — dare I say? — too much. I also wanted to illustrate that there really is such a thing as cross-cultural conflict! People do see things quite differently because of where they grew up, their education and artistic training. We were asked to leave the room once and we missed one or two shouting matches (so I heard) and that was extremely annoying, but understandable. Maybe we should have filmed the closed doors and let the audience wonder, as we did, what horrible things were being said.

DP: Any large scale opera production has a host of pressures on the collaborators, especially with a commissioned work that has not had the benefit of touring for years in front of loving audiences. Opera is a strange art form in itself, and a modern opera even more so. The Bonesetter’s Daughter took years to research, develop and write, required hundreds of musicians, cast members and crew, not to mention the amount of money and time invested in a piece of art that only lasts for eight performances. So there is a lot of pressure on everyone. Monica, Fawn, and I all knew about this pressure, but we didn’t know exactly how it would surface or where, so we did our best to watch for it at every step in the rehearsal process. Collaboration is the essence of an opera production, and conflict is an inevitable part of the artistic process. The ambitiousness of this production, its personal story, with Chinese singers, musicians, and acrobats, all working in a western setting – inevitably created its own operatic drama off stage.

Did observing the creative process of the making of an opera reveal new insights to you on the process of constructing a documentary, or affect the formal structure of the film that you ended up making?

FR: For me, it didn’t change how we approached the structure of the film, but it reinforced how similar the creative process is no matter what the artistic medium — how exciting it is to create something new and how challenging it can be to tell a story well. It also reminded me that collaboration in any creative endeavor can be extremely joyful, and equally tough. It requires respect for your collaborators’ talents and a laser-like focus on bettering the work itself. When the tension mounts, it requires finding a way to step back emotionally and focus on solving problems.

ML: Isn’t this like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle – where observing something changes the thing you’re observing? I’ll never know how the film might have turned out if I hadn’t observed the making of an opera. OK, in all seriousness, I think every film presents its own unique narrative challenges. I watched many making-of-an-opera documentaries (i.e. Irving Saraf & Allie Light’s In the Shadow of the Stars and Jon Else’s Sing Faster). I watched films about making films (from Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams to the Academy-Award winning fictional film Gods and Monsters, just to name two). They were all helpful and enlightening, but they couldn’t solve our problems. Both Amy’s novel and the opera dealt in flashbacks, time travel and even the theatrical twist of one character morphing into her own mother.

DP: Well, I discovered that the creative process of making an opera is nearly identical to making a documentary film, complete with all the conflict and drama. Thankfully, Monica, Fawn and I got along tremendously. In fact, I count the experience of making this film with such wonderfully talented partners, one of my best in my career. That said, the film had its own operatic moments. These included the pressures of shooting in China and in a union opera house in San Francisco, following the artistic process closely enough to create a compelling story, and then editing all the footage to one hour for national broadcast. It wasn’t easy. Film shares some of that same pressure and level of coordination, and sometimes I looked at Monica and Fawn and thought, “Why do we need to film the opera? We’ve got our own melodrama right here.”

What were some of the unexpected things that were revealed to you about the making of an opera for those of us who might not have a chance to sit behind the scenes?

FR: I could not fathom before doing this film the extent of the pressure on the creators of the opera and on the importance of its premiere. When an opera company presents Mozart or Wagner, it’s all about the new interpretation by the cast, director and designers, and the logistical and technical challenges of mounting the production. But creating a new piece is far riskier and truly all-consuming for the artistic and production teams. We know The Marriage of Figaro will be performed again; but with a new opera, the composer, librettist, director, designers and the singers originating the roles never know if the piece they’ve created will ever be seen again. An enormous amount of creative work and artistic reputations come under intense scrutiny. Wow! At least a film lives on, whether it’s watched in the future or not, but an opera, because it requires the music, visual and dramatic elements to come together in order to exist, can virtually disappear once the performance run is done.

ML: One thing that inspired me greatly was the enormous discipline that professional artists have – from musicians to stagehands to costume designers. Creative people are often portrayed as eccentric, idiosyncratic, wild. They may be all that, but the ones I worked with in the making of the documentary also worked tremendously hard.

DP: While I knew that the story was a very intimate one for Amy, I still considered it a work of fiction, since it was written as a novel first. Opera, I thought, was an even more exaggerated work of fiction, twice removed from the autobiography of the story, especially with its expressionistic set, costumes, and melodramatic arias. It turned out to be exactly the opposite. For Amy Tan, once wonderful singers like Zheng Cao, Qian Yi, Ning Liang inhabited her characters and began to express themselves in Stewart’s passionate music, Amy invested so much of herself into the opera. The story dropped all of its fictional garments and left the emotional truth bare on the stage, so that getting the characters and story right, or as close to actual history, became vital for her. Likewise, the opera had great emotional resonance for Stewart Wallace, who saw the immigrant story as one not far removed from his own family’s journey from Russia. For the director, Chen Shi-Zheng, his memory of the Cultural Revolution also made the immigrant story resonate for him. For the largely Chinese cast and musicians, for the people who funded and developed the opera, and for the three of us who made this documentary, the story took on emotional dimensions well beyond the dressing rooms of the production. When we heard that Zheng Cao had been diagnosed with cancer shortly after the production closed, all of us felt deeply moved to help her in any way possible, like a member of our own family. Cast, crew, and friends pitched in with a flood of love and support, which no doubt sustained her long beyond the odds of a difficult diagnosis. And when we lost her, I think all of us grieved deeply, like the loss of a sister. I know I did, remembering her sneaking me around the backstage of the San Francisco Opera House like a young girl, full of wonder at having a starring role that so beautifully fit her own emigration from China, in which she came to America with forty-five dollars and two words of English: “Merry Christmas.” And to that I say, Merry Christmas, Zheng, the journey for all us was a true gift.

What are you working on next?

FR: I’m teaching full-time now, which is new for me, so I’m pretty consumed… but I’m trying to develop a new video project about the cultural and political divide between urban and rural America in time for the 2016 election.

ML: I have to admit that I was not an opera fan before I made this film. But I became hooked. I’d like to make a film about the Mark Morris Dance Group’s piece L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, which features not only modern dancers and opera singers, but also a live orchestra. If they won’t have me, I hope another group might let me into their inner sanctum, where I can record their trials and hopefully illuminate their triumphs.

DP: I’m working on a number of things. I’m about to premiere a large screen projection film that I directed to accompany a symphony by Yotam Haber that commemorates the 50th anniversary of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. In terms of documentaries, I’m developing one about an arts school in a favela in Brazil, and another about a ballet company that teaches homeless kids to dance in New York City. If that isn’t enough, I’m also casting for a dramatic feature film that I co-wrote and will direct, and has been eight years in the making.