Ghost Opera is a five-movement work for string quartet and pipa with water, metal, stones, and paper. The composer describes this work as a reflection on human spirituality, which is too often buried in the bombardment of urban culture and the rapid advances of technology. It is a cross-temporal, cross-cultural, and cross-media dialogue that touches on the past, present, future, and the eternal; employs elements from Chinese, Tibetan, English, and American cultures; and combines performance traditions of the European classical concert, Chinese shadow puppet theater, visual art installations, folk music, dramatic theater, and shamanistic ritual.
In composing Ghost Opera, Tan was inspired by childhood memories of the shamanistic "ghost operas" of Chinese peasant culture. In this tradition, which is over 4,000 years old, humans and spirits of the future, the past, and nature communicate with each other. Tan's Ghost Opera embraces this tradition, calling on the spirits of Bach (in the form of a quotation from the Prelude in C-sharp minor from Book II of The Well-Tempered Clavier), Shakespeare (a brief excerpt from The Tempest), ancient folk traditions, and earth/nature (represented by the Chinese folk song "Little Cabbage"). The Bach excerpt acts, the composer says, as "a seed from which grows a new counterpoint of different ages, different sound worlds, and different cultures." In the final movement, the gradual transformation of the counterpoint brings the spirits of Bach and Shakespeare, the civilized world, and the rational mind, "this insubstantial pageant," into the eternal earth. The installation employs paper, shadow, and water gong basins placed around the performing space. The performers' movements among the different positions reflect the back-and-forth movement between different time frames and spiritual realms that is characteristic of the "ghost opera" tradition.