• Tan Dun
  • The First Emperor (2006)

  • G Schirmer Inc (World)

Performance restrictions apply. Please contact us for additional information.

  • Cast: S, 2Mz, 2T, Bar, B, Peking Opera Singer; chorus; dancers; Orch: 2(amp bfl).2.2.2/3.3Ctpt.2.1/timp.4perc.Tibetan singing bowl/2hp/str; ancient music instruments (min 7 players): large Chinese drums, pairs of stones, 15-string Zheng[=Chinese lute or Japanese koto], pitched ceramic chimes[=pitched ceramic flower pots], waterphones, giant bell onstage
  • 2 hr 35 min
  • Ha Jin and Tan Dun
  • English

Programme Note

Opera in two acts
Music by Tan Dun
Libretto by Ha Jin and Tan Dun

Cast List
   PRINCESS YUE-YANG, Emperor's daughter: Soprano
   GAO JIAN LI, musician: Lyric Tenor
   SHAMAN: Mezzo-soprano
   YIN-YANG MASTER, official geomancer: Peking Opera Singer
   MOTHER OF YUE-YANG: Mezzo-soprano

   CHORUS: soldiers, slaves, guards, etc.
   ANCIENT RITUAL INSTRUMENTS: ceramics, stones, zheng, giant bell, and drums (on stage)
   ORCHESTRA (in orchestra pit)

More than 2,300 years ago, China was divided into seven warring states. Among them the state of Chin was the strongest and eventually conquered its six rivals. After Chin Shi Huang unified the country, he established the first central government, calling himself the First Emperor. To strengthen central rule, he standardized the written word, currency, measurements, and roads. He also initiated many building projects, among which were the Great Wall and his tomb guarded by the terra-cotta soldiers. But behind those imperial achievements, there was a tragic story of love, hate, and betrayal.

Based on Historical Records, by Sima Qian (c.145 BC — c.85 BC)
and on the screenplay, The Legend of the Bloody Zheng, by Lu Wei




Act One: Shadow

Standing in front of the closed curtain, the Yin-Yang master invites the audience to witness a two-thousand-year-old story of love, betrayal, and madness.

Act I, Scene 1
The Emperor and his entourage are watching the Shaman lead a ritual performance. His daughter, Yue-yang, is in a sedan, her legs paralyzed from a riding accident. She is betrothed to General Wang. The Emperor interrupts the ritual as he finds the music empty. The Emperor wants an Anthem to unify the land and orders Wang to change the war plans so that he can find the musician Gao Jian Li. The Emperor tells about Jian Li, his childhood friend and master musician.

Act I, Scene 2 In the Chin Palace
The Emperor and his Chief Minister are discussing ways to unify the empire. Wang enters and delivers the captured Jian Li. The Emperor welcomes Jian Li as his brother but Jian Li despises him for his brutality. The Emperor orders him to write the Anthem but Jian Li refuses, preferring to die.

Act I, Scene 3
Yue-yang is attending Jian Li who is fasting to death. When left alone she seduces him. The startled Jian Li responds and they make love. She then realizes that she has regained the use of her paralyzed limbs. The Emperor enters with his retinue. He is at first ecstatic, but then they all realize how the miracle happened.

Act Two: Anthem

Act II, Scene 1
At a construction site of the Great Wall, slaves are laboring under threat of whips. In the foreground, Jian Li, now healthy and happily in love, is giving a music lesson to Yue-yang. Jian Li stops to listen to the Shaman's singing and then to the slaves' chorus and is clearly touched by their songs. The Emperor arrives to force Yue-yang to marry the General and she storms away. The Emperor convinces Jian Li to wait for Wang to die in battle. In the mean time Jian Li must compose the Anthem.

Act II, Scene 2
The throne is at the top of a pyramid of steps. Jian Li, the newly-appointed Chief Minister, announces the beginning of the ceremony. The Anthem is to be played only when the Emperor reaches the throne. The Emperor begins to climb the steps and stops, the ghost of Yue-yang tells of her suicide. After climbing further he is stopped again, Wang's ghost tells him that Jian Li poisoned him, and still seeks vengeance. As the Emperor climbs higher, Jian Li lunges at him, grief-stricken and crazed. The Emperor asks Jian Li to call him Elder Brother. Jian Li does so then bites off his tongue. Realizing his death will be slow and painful, the Emperor stabs Jian Li. When the Emperor reaches the throne he asks that the Anthem begin. It is the slaves' song, and the Emperor realizes this is the Jian Li’s revenge.




  • The Operas of Tan Dun
    • 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.