Repertoire Search

Tan Dun

Publisher: G. Schirmer

Tea: A Mirror of Soul (2002),
Text Writer
Tan Dun and Xu Ying
G Schirmer Inc
Opera and Music Theatre
Year Composed
1 Hour 48 Minutes
Bass baritone chorus
Soprano, Contralto, Tenor, Baritone, Bass, 3 Percussion
Programme Note
Tan Dun Tea: A Mirror of Soul (2002),

Based on historical fact, Tea sketches the tale of Seikyo, a prince-cum-monk. By suffering "bitter love," Seikyo transcended a cruel destiny to achieve an austere peace, the meaning of which he teaches through tea rituals. But that is only half the story. For Seikyo's bitter love also involves a princess, an erotic passion so tainted by jealousy that it ends in death, shamanistic rituals, and fierce struggles over an ancient book of wisdom. Combining the lyricism of Italianate opera, lush Western orchestration, a male "Greek chorus," gamelan-like percussion, and the organic sounds of nature — water, paper, and stones — Tea brings an ancient tale to the 21st century.

Cast List:

   SEIKYO, Japanese Monk (discovery/philosophy): Baritone
   LAN, Chinese Princess/ Puppet Monk (love): Soprano
   PRINCE, Chinese Prince/ Puppet Monkey King (anger): Tenor
   EMPEROR, Father of Lan/ Shadow (tradition/culture): Bass
   LU, Shadow/ Ritualist/ Daughter of Tea Sage Luyu (tea/messenger for spirit): Contralto
   MONKS CHANTING (religion): Bass-Baritone Chorus
   THREE PERCUSSIONISTS (nature): Water, Paper, Ceramic Instruments
   ORCHESTRA (drama)

download brochure
downloadable brochure
Acrobat format

Act I
Kyoto, Japan. Ancient times. Japanese tea ceremony inside a temple tea garden. High monk Seikyo raises an empty teapot, passes an empty bowl, and savors empty tea ritualistically. Chanting monks ask why he savors the tea from emptiness. Seikyo, a Prince by birth, relates that ten years ago he became a monk because of his bitter love...

Ten years earlier. ChangAn, ancient Chinese capital. Family bliss inside the palace. Beautiful Princess Lan and her brother the Prince perform for their father. Seikyo enters and the Emperor receives him with surprise. They speak of fond memories. Seikyo expresses his wish to marry Lan. The Emperor hesitates, and asks Seikyo to recite a tea poem. The Prince angrily expresses his disapproval. Seikyo's excellence at reciting leads the Emperor to consent.

Amidst a Chinese tea ceremony, a Persian arrives, offering a thousand horses in exchange for one book: The Book of Tea. Treasured secrets fill this book of wisdom. The Prince, who possesses this book, reluctantly retrieves it from his sleeve. Seikyo expresses doubt that this is the true book shown him by its author, his teacher the Tea Sage Luyu. Angry and jealous, the Prince challenges Seikyo; vowing to sacrifice his own life if Seikyo can show him the "real" Book of Tea. Seikyo promises to end his life if proven wrong.

Act II
Seikyo and Lan travel south in search of the true Book of Tea. Lan acquaints Seikyo with the legend of how tea was invented thousands of years ago. On the journey their love blossoms.

In the South, Seikyo and Lan arrive during a ritual tea ceremony, offered by Lu, daughter of Tea Sage Luyu. Lu announces Luyu's death. She consents to give Seikyo and Lan the Book of Tea on the condition that they vow to spread its wisdom throughout the world. As they read, the Prince bursts in and grabs it. A fight erupts between Seikyo and the Prince. Attempting to stop the duel, Lan is mortally wounded. Covered in blood, Lan drinks the tea of emptiness. The Prince kneels before Seikyo, presenting his sword. Instead of killing the Prince, Seikyo slices off his own hair...

The chanting of monks returns... In a Japanese tea garden, high monk Seikyo raises the empty teapot, passes the empty tea bowls, and savors the empty tea.

  • Ensemble
    NHK Symphony Orchestra
    Pierre Audi, director
    Tan Dun
    Deutsche Grammophon:
What is initially striking is that in [Tea's] the scenario, in which the composer took an active part, all the elements that surround mankind such as love, philosophy, art, the soul, feelings, tradition, religion and nature are blended into a whole with other elements such as the passage of time, abstraction and reality, directness and indirectness, universality and singularity, complexity and simplicity, difficulty and ease, symbol and metaphor...These elements are then combined with the simple but effective stage layout, the lighting, the costumes and above all Tan Dun's dynamic music to form great drama...Water, stone, earth and paper are used as musical instruments in this opera and are brought into surprising harmony with the orchestra, creating magical effects. Their sounds cross the borders of time and cultural difference and touch the essence of human life. The various instruments, themes and voices refer to music of many periods and modern peoples, including the Chinese, Japanese, South-East Asian and European; all of these influences are filtered by Tan and brought into a perfect harmony that is characteristic of his music...Tan unfolds his music in a dynamic and spatial manner, first slow and aesthetic, then strongly and urgently, all the while keeping the grace of the music in overall balance. He is especially successful in moving the spectator by always breaking the pattern of what the listener expects to happen.
Tokyo Journal, Japan, ,02/11/2002
The first European performance of Tea, a new piece by the Chinese composer Tan Dun, was an unqualified success. The piece is a fascinating blend of East and West, religion and drama, love and death. The central love story, of the Japanese monk Seikyo (Holy Sound) and the Chinese princess Lan (Orchid), is presented with so much poetry that by comparison the world of Romeo and Juliet seems very rough-and-tumble indeed. These roles were taken by two exceptionally gifted singers. The baritone Haijung Fu presented a splendidly full and focused voice, as well as a distinguished presence. The soprano Nancy Allen Lundy seemed to delight in the Zerbinetta-like virtuosity of her role. Tan Dun's music for these two figures was unabashedly vocal. Perhaps since Puccini and Bernstein there has been no one to write such grateful lines for singers...The colorful orchestration inspired the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra, and the composer is a fine conductor. Hopefully this staging will be given elsewhere.
Michael Davidson, Opera, UK,01/01/0001
Tan and co-librettist Xu Ying, resident playwright of China National Theatre, fashioned culturally disparate tales into a loose-leaf narrative that benefited greatly from Pierre Audi's minimal staging. Tea's true success, though, lay in Tan's music, an ever-extending sonic palette...The NHK Symphony proved perfectly responsive...particularly when musicians were required to vocalize or to animate the music. Three percussionists [represented] water, paper and stone. Water was dripped, poured and bowed (on a waterphone, an instrument of Tan's invention). Paper was crumpled, torn and malleted (on three floor-to-ceiling sheets). Struck ceramics not only sounded eerily like gamelan but actually managed to blend smoothly with Western tunings. These sounds aren't new for Tan, but the playful experimentation of his earlier works already had taken on emotional resonance in his Water Passion after St. Matthew [2000]. In Tea, these techniques have essentially evolved into non-pitched leitmotifs, with stones emitting a feeling of fate, paper a smooth sensuality and water an ominous message of birth and rebirth. Tan's music may sound impulsive, but Tea obviously has been brewing for a long time.
Ken Smith, Opera News,01/01/0001
Close X

Newsletter Signup

Enter your email address to keep up to date with the latest news and special offers from Wise Music Classical.
Your data is secure and you can unsubscribe at any time. Read our Privacy Policy

Click here to receive regular news
© Copyright 2020 Wise Music Classical. Part of Wise Music Group.