- Sharing the Dream with New Audiences via New Media
Much of my career has been ordinary (with a fairly conventional menu of teaching, research, and administration) but in the last decade or so, it has become rather less ordinary. I constructed a website in conjunction with an opera based on Dream of the Red Chamber, and I began writing scripts and performing them with an early music group called Sacabuche. While I do not regard either project as “public history,” both are public, and both have deep roots in my work as a historian. Both projects have brought me tremendous pleasure. Projects like these (and those described elsewhere in this issue) matter in that they make our work as historians or literary scholars visible to a larger public. This will not of course eliminate the crisis of the humanities, but projects explicitly addressed to public audiences are one way of approaching the problem. I was a full professor long before I embarked on these public and artistic endeavors. If we are serious about encouraging young scholars to experiment with unconventional projects, we need to figure out ways of evaluating and acknowledging them in our hiring and promotion and tenure processes. I have written elsewhere about my work with Sacabuche;1 here I describe my work with the opera.
The Dream of the Red Chamber has invited commentary, illustration and adaptation since its first publication in the late eighteenth century. In the fall of 2016, the San Francisco Opera performed a work which participated in this ongoing response to the novel—in an English-language opera, with the libretto written by David Henry Hwang and [End Page 17] Bright Sheng and the music composed by Bright Sheng. The opera has subsequently been performed in Hong Kong, Beijing, Chengdu and Wuhan, and there is every reason to believe that it will continue to be performed.2
The impetus for the creation of an English-language opera based on the novel came from the Chinese Heritage Foundation, which is based in Minnesota.3 Joseph Allen, who was then the chair of the Department of Asian Languages and Literatures, wanted to establish a connection between the opera and the University of Minnesota. He asked me if I would construct an on-line course on the opera. I said yes before I had any clear idea of how I would construct the course, or where I would get the technical help I would need. Fortunately, technical help was forthcoming from the Consortium for the Study of the Premodern World at the University of Minnesota, directed by J.B. Shank and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.4 I obtained time to do the work by teaching a graduate seminar on how to make an online course, which was co-taught by Marguerite Ragnow, the curator of the James Ford Bell Library at the University of Minnesota. The resulting website was more or less finished by the summer of 2016, in time to go live before the September premiere of the opera. I ultimately decided that the idea of a “course” was perhaps too ambitious; the audience in the first instance was opera-goers, who seemed unlikely to want to do homework, and since I was not particularly interested in grading their homework. So the “course” became an interactive website. Although the website was initially designed in conjunction with the opera, it can be used effectively with any actual course in which the novel, eighteenth-century Chinese society or theatrical adaptation play a role.
The site (http://redchamber.dash.umn.edu/Omeka/) has had more than 25,000 hits as of this writing. Much of the website has the Chinese original texts as well as translations, usually from the Hawkes/Minford [End Page 18] translation of the novel. This bilingual aspect makes the website more useful to viewers in Chinese-speaking parts of the world (who represent about 7% of the total audience), as well as being useful to language learners, and providing access for all Chinese readers to the original text.
I was of course greatly assisted in my work by scholarship on the novel—two works were particularly important to...