Epic, exciting, and innovative, Tan Dun’s 2018 masterpiece Buddha Passion refuses to be categorized. It’s an oratorio—a huge musical work for orchestra and voices, typically religious and without costumes, sets, and staging—but it’s almost an opera as well. It’s Western classical music, but it’s also Eastern religious music. It’s sung in Chinese and Sanskrit by both white and Asian musicians in America. It’s ancient and avant-garde, simple and opulent, lyrical and percussive. The massive work, which calls for a full adult choir, children’s choir, symphony, five singers, and a dancer, is a patchwork of inspirations working in harmony to preach love, forgiveness, sacrifice, and salvation.
It’s little wonder that Buddha Passion is a fusion of many styles as the composer is a man of many labels. The Seattle Symphony describes the Chinese-born, American-based Tan Dun as a “shaman and showman,” and he’s also a prolific composer and conductor.
Tan uses his unique compositional style to redefine what a Passion is. Traditionally, it’s a musical presentation of the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus Christ, but Tan’s Passion follows a Buddhist narrative. His Passion is inspired by the millenia-old Mogao Caves in China, a complex of temples boasting 45,000 square meters of murals and more than 2,000 sculptures depicting Buddhist tales. The heroes of the stories are reincarnated as Gautama Buddha, whose collective altruism over many lifetimes makes up the wisdom and compassion of Buddha.
The 90-minute-long Buddha Passion consists of six acts, each of them revolving around an independent story. Each act is sung in plain Mandarin, except for a few Sanskrit mantras and sutras. English and Traditional Chinese subtitles are projected on a screen above the stage.
Act I: Under the Bodhi Tree tells the tale of a Little Prince becoming Buddha by realizing that all lives are equal with the help of a mantra’s voice from the sky and then sitting under a Bodhi tree to meditate.
Act II: The Deer of Nine Colors is based on a popular Chinese folktale about a man betraying a magical deer who saved him from drowning. As the deer dies, karma seeks vengeance and the man dies painfully as well.
Act III: Thousand Arms and Thousand Eyes features an emperor relaxing with his daughters until his daughter Miaoshan gives her arms and eyes to a dying woman. Her sacrifice makes her a Bodhisattva, someone who is enlightened but delays entering nirvana to save suffering beings.
Act IV: Zen Garden opens with Buddhist monks meditating about the Master Monk’s understanding of Zen until a passing woodcutter chimes in with his own interpretation of the philosophy. This act feels like the most philosophical of the six, as the woodcutter discusses with the master about how the mind is or isn’t a Bodhi tree or a mirror, and even whether or not Bodhi trees and mirrors physically exist.
Act V: Heart Sutra is about a minstrel monk named Kongxian meeting a woman named Nina from the West. They huddle together for warmth in the bitter cold of the night, but Nina dies in Kongxian’s arms as they express their hopes to meet again in another lifetime.
Act VI: Nirvana ends the massive work with the Buddha (Madore) giving his last words of wisdom to his disciples before closing his eyes and leaving for Nirvana, a state free from worldly desire and suffering.
Buddha Passion sounds majestic and grand at times, but Tan kept it from sounding like an orientalist Puccini pastiche with his contemporary touch. Unique percussion instruments like singing bowls and rattling woodblocks created an otherworldly ambience, and the taiko drum thundered out a fast, complex beat under the plush music of Miaoshan’s Act III sacrifice scene, preventing it from sounding overly sweet. Tan even used water in Act IV for an organic musical effect, amplifying the sound of a percussionist dripping water from a strainer and tapping water in a basin with plastic cups. I appreciated the creative instrumentation because it made the music sound fresh and kept me on my toes when following along with the orchestra.
Modern classical music gets a bad rap for being ear-gratingly dissonant and unlistenable, but Tan uses dissonance as a welcoming respite from the rest of his lush, tonal orchestration. Acts I and II started in dissonance before acts III through VI transition into soaring melodies and simple chants. Tan instructed his orchestra to struggle between quasi-romantic richness and dissonance during Nina’s act V death to emphasize Nina’s attempts to cling onto life.
The singers, who mostly stood or sat in the front of the stage in typical Passion style, managed to make a collection of unstaged stories dramatic. Mezzo-soprano Megan Moore was an energetic and even humorous Little Prince at the start of act I and ended the act as a wizened man. As the Deer of Nine Colors in act II and one of the emperor’s daughters in act III, soprano Lei Xu sang in an operatic manner, but as Nina in act VI, she proved her impressive skill at singing in a traditional Chinese style. Traditional Chinese singing requires a singer to make their voice thin and silvery, but Xu occasionally switched to an operatic voice on the highest notes, creating a slightly jarring effect. Yi Li, the tenor, was an incredible actor, and baritone Elliot Madore possessed the necessary gravitas for his roles as the Buddha, the King in acts II and III, and the Zen Master in act IV. The Indigenous Inner Mongolian overtone vocalist Batubagen as Kongxian in act V mesmerized me with his guttural, multi-layered sound.
The Seattle Symphony Choir and Northwest Boychoir were precise and emotive. Tan experimented with having them singing overtones and slides to create an enchanting vibe. A delightful surprise ensued when Tan screamed with the orchestra in act II to portray a crowd, and the string players raised their bows. Act II nearly felt like an opera since there was such an emphasis on scene changes and acting.
I appreciated hearing my Chinese Buddhist culture accurately represented in classical music. Tan quoted the Heart Sutra and Compassion Mantra in his piece, and I instantly recognized the tune and words which I have known by heart since childhood. It was surreal to hear a full orchestra and choir sing them in Benaroya Hall; I’m used to hearing and singing classical music in European languages, so hearing the Passion sung in Chinese that I could understand made me feel like I’m not a guest to the classical music world. I myself have sang and heard my fair share of Christian classical music, but those pieces never resonated with me as much as Buddha Passion did.
Seattle was incredibly fortunate to have Tan Dun perform here, especially since we have a large population of Asian student classical musicians. As an Asian performer, I look up to Tan Dun and the Asian singers Li Yi and Lei Xu. Asian role models are important in a white-dominanted industry, but the wonderfully eclectic Buddha Passion also showed how non-Western influences provide a breath of fresh air for Western classical music. Buddha Passion was one of my favorite concerts of all time, well worth a listen for its unique influences and timeless lessons.
Tan Dun Buddha Passion took place at the Seattle Symphony on November 10 — 12, 2022. For more information see here.