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The Philosophy Behind the Firmiana Rain

The story line of the opera is based on the Firmiana Rain and the Palace of Longevity, two versions of the same love tragedy from the T’ang dynasty.  The opera is a modern rendering of the old story.

The T’ang Ming Emperor’s love for poetry and music influenced his love for the Lady Yang Yu-huan, who was the personification of the aesthetics of the T’ang dynasty.  During her life span (739-757), the T’ang empire was the most powerful kingdom in the East: having great influence politically, economically and artistically.  Especially, it was the golden age of Chinese poetry; the time when Li Po and Tu Fu thrived.   China was also the main center for Medieval Asian music and dance, because of the noble people’s demand. 

Lady Yang is the woman who embodied the beauty, exuberant energy, and in a sense, decadence of the cosmopolitan culture of the high T’ang.   Sadly, she became the symbol that marked the sharp decline of the T’ang dynasty from its prime.  Much of this blame came from the leading intellects and military men of the time -- reflecting the view of a male centered society. In this particular story we see a conflicting image of womanhood. It is one where a woman may be appreciated, rewarded and revered for her artistic sensibilities and gifts of beauty. Yet conversely, this same woman becomes reviled when connected to political power -- real or imagined. It was the power of her sex that acted as her rise to Number One Consort, but equally, was the cause of her death.  The sacrifice of the heroine makes to save the Emperor's kingdom (read: "her man") should be viewed as the manifestation of stabbing the soft spot in any power struggle.

Could one really blame the toppling of the whole kingdom on one beauty? Certainly not, yet familiar precedents abound in such examples as Helen of Troy, Cleopatra and even superficially, Lady Diana. In all historic documents, the face and identity of Lady Yang were blurred. Because of her legendary beauty and talent, she was said to be a sent-down Goddess from Heaven.

In the opera, I examine the "goddess" aspect, while at the same time exploring what made her distinctive as a woman.  She was not just one who embraced beauty and sensitivity in her fully bloomed femininity, but someone who also pursued self-awareness and eventually (as legend would have it) gained immortality after the tragedy of her unexpected death. The privileges she and her family received gave rise to envy and inevitably hatred, by the people. In some cases this envy was not unreasonable. Her cousin, Prime Minister Yang, through patronage, became prime minister.   In many ways he was one of the main factors responsible for the fall of the T’ang.

Early in their courtship the Emperor and his favorite consort made vows of everlasting fealty.  Their vows were tested and re-tested in extreme circumstances.  The ultimate test involved death, which Lady Yang chose to save her beloved's throne.  Even so, he eventually lost it to his son.   The heart-broken emperor suffered immeasurably from the loss of her and reveled in loneliness for the rest of his life.  Eventually her spirit visited the consumed old man, and revealed to him a vision of sadness transcended, and moreover, a picture of a woman redeemed by the faith she had in their love.  In the end the crystallization of his life suddenly ran before his eyes and the earthly life lost precedence to something greater.

Obviously this is a tale with universal application and familiarity.  With regard to political implications we see a statesman who is no longer concerned with the general responsibilities of running a kingdom.   As we learn there are disastrous results.  This is a theme one sees explored often in the plays of William Shakespeare.  On a romantic level, the Place of Longevity is almost an archetypal story of transcendence through the rigors of loving another human being.  Ironically, it seems only right that he and she met on another plain, since on earth, there was an imbalance between the two.  Heaven though, represents the possibility of love unencumbered by the tests of politics, power and even sexuality.

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