For a city by the sea -- a port town that enthusiastically believes in its own "world-class" status -- Vancouver is a shockingly segregated place, a study in emphatic delineations.
Despite half its population being Asian, its neighbourhoods remain suburban enclaves as opposed to metropolitan melting pots.
And local politics are as divisive as the growing gap between the haves and the have nots.
And yet, in an area that spans both Canada's richest and poorest postal codes, we are not allowed to mention the war; at least not in polite company. We live in a post-political, post-racial netherland, where consumerism and the cult of "lifestyle" have rendered us genderless, ageless and opnion-less -- at least nothing deeper than the 140 character twitter-sphere variety. Beyond that, we venture into uncharted territory, where we run the risk of offending "stakeholders" -- and worse -- stealing valuable time and energy from rent and mortgage paying, or body perfecting pursuits.
Ironically, our much celebrated foodie scene, where fusion has long been fetishized, recently became a battleground of sorts. West side university kids, well meaning anti-poverty activists and salaried organizers chose to vent their rage against gentrification on a single eatery called Pidgin, picketing and providing political puppetry for the benefit of diners -- who may or may not have enjoyed the vicarious thrill of proximity to the ensuing street theatre.
The logic of protesting a single restaurant -- and an East meets West one (its "location" both cuisine wise and at the geographic epicentre of the city) at that -- as opposed to say the billions of dollars sucked into the local anti-poverty NGO industry, aside, the whole Pidgin situation remains a compelling civic crucible.
We are bad at fusion -- at least anything beyond superficial shopping mall multiculturalism. We are good at intractable polarities, vestigial colonialism and maintaining the status quo, in spite or our it's a small world after all civic Pollyannaism. And so Vancouver, a slow merry-go-round of a city, bleeds a languid inertia, as powerful and crippling as kryptonite, as seductive as the sea.
Perhaps the problem lies in the word fusion, which can imply a certain force or perhaps even a force majeure. I prefer the word infusion, which offers a less aggressive connotation. Technically defined as the process of extracting compounds or flavours from plant material in a solvent, by allowing the material to remain suspended over time, it's also known as steeping. As in tea. As in Tea: a Mirror of the Soul, the Tan Dun (of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame) opera that just closed the season at the VO.
No, this is not just a long preamble into an opera review, but rather an example of how cultural infusion can produce something exquisite- flowering rather than forced, organic, not awkward.
While I was expecting the latter, I came away from the final night of Tea: a Mirror of the Soul -- its Canadian premiere -- pleasantly surprised. Tan Dun's blending of elements ranging from the ancient proclamation chants of Japanese and Tibetan priests, to Chinese poetry and opera to noh and Puccini, produced a richly textured soundscape that spoke to something universal.
As Tan Dun puts it "beautiful melodies are timeless, boundless and appeal to all hearts. I think of a melody as a vibration that is emitted naturally from the body."
Dun's artistry, combined with the lush set and costumes (designed by Rumi Matsui and Masatomo Ota respectively) and the emotionally engaged performances of leads Nancy Allen Lundy (as Lan) and Chen-Ye Yuan (as her beloved Seikyo) who embark on a romantic if ill fated quest to find the "Book of Tea" -- conspired to create some shimmering operatic moments.
ChenYe Yuan as Seikyo; Nancy Allen Lundy as Princess Lan
Notably, the love scene in Act 2 where lyrics about tea blends and "yin and yang" coming together managed to be both erotic and transcendent at once. Framed by vibrant bolts of billowing silk and a haunting yet harmonious combination of European and Asian instruments, the moment was instructive.
Why can't Vancouver be more like this opera? Let's trade some of our new world enthusiasm for some Silk Road sophistication; oil tankers for shipping containers of tea. Once a hot commodity that sparked wars and love affairs, tea speaks to another era, when there was time to brew and contemplate.
As the opera's enigmatic lyrical motif suggests, "Tea is hard to grow. Picking tea leaves is harder. Savouring tea is hardest of all."
Ning Liang as The Ritualist