The First Emperor is about the guy with the terracotta army. You know the one. Here’s what happens in the opera by Tan Dun.*
The first emperor of unified China wants a leitmotif for the empire so he asks John Williams to write the Imperial March. Since John Williams wasn’t born yet (it was 221 BC), the Emperor (Qin Shi Huang) tells him to write it anyway – and then resorts to his second choice, Gao Jianli.
Gao Jianli was a childhood friend – they did jail time together, were both marked as slaves and were raised by the same mother. The Emperor remembers that Jianli played a mean zheng and, referring to him as his Shadow, thinks he’s just the guy for the job. Surely they’ll be on the same page. Jianli will write some great new music to replace the old dusty favorites. All they have to do is conquer Jianli’s homeland – which was on their To Do list anyway – and bring back Jianli. The Emperor sends his general off to do the conquering – offering the princess to him when he returns.
He does return with Jianli, but there’s a catch: The Emperor’s armies burned everything and killed everyone in the process (including trampling Jianli’s mother). He’s not going to write the anthem. He’d rather die.
He tries to starve himself, but the Princess has a thing for musicians,** and seduces him into eating and… other things. In the course of the other things, she regains the use of her legs (she had been lame since a fall off her father’s horse). Her father is thrilled until he discovers the cause of the miracle cure. And then he wants to kill Jianli – except he still wants Jianli to finish the anthem, so he stalls. Also he considers him a brother and blah, blah, blah (he wants the anthem).
The General, who is slated to marry the princess, doesn’t even like anthems.
Mom and Dad try to talk the princess into marrying the General, but she refuses. She thinks it’s horrible and selfish of her father to put an empire first. She broods and puts posters of Jianli up on her bedroom walls. She may or may not also take to wearing black, painting her nails purple, and cutting herself. All the while, slaves continue to build the Great Wall of China as if nothing else is going on.
The Emperor, figuring a way out of all his promises, asks Jianli to be patient and allow the princess to marry the general. After they’re married, he’ll send the general off to battle, he’ll be killed, and Jianli will join the court. And by the way, how’s that anthem coming?
It all goes according to plan and if you want to not read the spoiler and surprise ending, you should stop reading here.
No really, stop.
It does not go at all according to plan. They gather to hear the new anthem at the inauguration, but before the anthem is sung, news comes that the princess refused to enter the bridal chamber and the general strangled her.
The princess comes back from the grave long enough to clarify that she killed herself. And then the news comes that the general also killed himself. He comes back from the grave long enough to clarify that he did not kill himself, he was poisoned by Jianli. Also, beware the dwarf and don’t let your daughter date musicians. Seriously, musicians are bad news and the Emperor should watch his back because Jianli is still in a twist about the “you trampled my mother” thing.
Jianli arrives and the Emperor turns to him for comfort in this dark hour, which is a mistake because it turns out the ghost general is right. Jianli, in a fit of wrath and perhaps grief (at this point we’ve started to wonder if the whole thing was just a fancy way to die since that’s what he wanted in scene 2 anyway), bites off his own tongue and gives it to the Emperor, who skewers him.
Once everyone who’s slated to die has died, the chorus dutifully sings the new anthem which does not bear as much resemblance to Darth Vader’s theme as it does the song the slaves sang earlier on. As the Emperor himself points out, this is Jianli’s revenge. The end.
*I have a crush on Tan Dun.
**When the princess told her father she wanted a musician, there was an audible groan from my roomful of friends, all of whom are (or are married to, or work with) musicians. We totally could have told her so.***
*** but I still have a crush on Tan Dun.