A murderous emperor in search of an air

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 December, 2006, 12:00am

Placido Domingo has done just about everything an opera singer can do in his 45-year long career - except premiere an original work at New York's Metropolitan Opera House. That's why he's so excited about the starring role in The First Emperor, written and conducted by Tan Dun, the composer behind the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon soundtrack.

'This is a very important moment for me,' says Domingo before the first dress rehearsal. 'I've been associated with the Met for almost 30 years. I've participated in many things and been part of the company. But this is the first time that I'm doing a world premiere here - and a world premiere of a composer I admire, too.'

The new opera tells the story of Qin Shi Huang, the ruthless third century BC ruler who united China and pronounced himself the first emperor. Tan will conduct, filmmaker Zhang Yimou will direct, Emi Wada - known for her work with Akira Kurosawa - is responsible for costumes, and novelist Ha Jin wrote the libretto. The story of Qin has been told many times, but the opera hinges not on his murders and brutal military campaigns, but on his search for a national anthem to unify his subjects.

Domingo is well aware that his character is generally regarded as a tyrant, in spite of his achievements. 'He's a controversial character,' he says. 'We're lucky, as in an opera you don't need to be completely true to history. I think that Tan Dun has made this character better than he actually was. Tan has put him with his daughter, and that makes him more human.'

'But he still doesn't behave that well,' the tenor says. 'It seems like, throughout history, in all the countries in the world, a lot of people have had to suffer for the idea of national unity. No one can approve of what the first emperor does. But you have to find some kind of sympathy for the character if you're going to perform him. For me, his love for his daughter is the key.'

At the dress rehearsal, Domingo holds his voice in check ahead of the full performance. But he manages to fill the auditorium by force of personality.

Tan says The First Emperor - which was commissioned by the Met and took 10 years to come to fruition - was written with Domingo in mind. He says he has long had a dream to write an opera for Domingo. 'I never thought that I could realise this dream. But now it's come true, and I'm very happy.'

Zhang, who told his own version of the first emperor story in Hero, is also in awe of the great tenor. He has directed opera before, having staged a version of Turandot in the Forbidden City. 'This is my second time directing an opera,' he says. 'To me, Domingo is the best opera performer in the world. It has been a joyful experience working with him and the team. I hope we have created something wonderful for the audience.'

Because Zhang can't speak English or Spanish, he couldn't communicate directly with Domingo. But it wasn't a problem. 'Music is borderless, and art lets us communicate in a thorough way,' he says. 'We aren't able to talk the same language, but there's a different kind of communication. This is an original work, so there's a lot of opportunity for discussion.'

Domingo says he enjoyed working on a new opera. 'You always find more in a new work, as less has been set by precedent,' he says. 'Of course, this can make it harder, too. Usually, I'll study how others have approached my role and take a bit from that. I can't do that here. But it's possible to discuss things with the composer directly because he's conducting. Back in the days of Verdi, the artists always used to collaborate with the composer, so it's nice to be able to do it with Tan Dun.'

Domingo is enthusiastic about the opera, which is described as a work in progress. 'We have a great big stage here at the Met, and we've made good use of it,' he says. 'I hope that the public will be touched by this work. It's very powerful.'

The First Emperor, Metropolitan Opera House. Ends Jan 25