A few years ago, the Oscar-winning composer Tan Dun and his friends visited a nunnery in southern China. After waiting for about half an hour, an old nun came out to offer them tea. To their surprise, the bowls were all empty but, undeterred, the nun raised an empty bowl, saying "please" and ritualistically savored the "tea".
Wang Wei plays the leading role in a new opera, Tea: A Mirror of Soul. Photos by Jiang Dong
Tan and his friends were totally confused. "The bowl is empty. Where is the tea?" one of them asked. The nun did not answer, just repeated "please" and pointed at the empty bowls.
Her behavior inspired Tan, who later interpreted it as: "If there is tea in your mind, there is tea in the bowl; if there is no tea in your mind, even a full bowl means nothing."
This is the theme of his opera Tea: A Mirror of Soul. Throughout the show, chorus repeats a version of Tan's original insight: Bowl empty, scent glows; shadow gone, dream grows.
Commissioned by Tokyo's Santory Hall and premiered in 2002, the three-act opera has wowed audiences all over the world with its synthesis of Chinese philosophy, lush Western orchestration, the use of an all-male "Greek-style" chorus and Tan's trademark "organic" music.
The opera is being staged at the National Center for the Performing Arts on July 30 and 31 to celebrate the Olympics.