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.
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
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.
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.
- The Operas of Tan Dun
- The music of Chinese American composer Tan Dun invites the listener into a personal sound world that expertly marries Eastern and Western musical traditions.