An operatic tree to flower at Davies Hall 

Most composers reach into the past or use the stuff of legends, but not John C. Adams. The Berkeley composer has virtually invented "documentary classical music," on the order of the operas "Nixon in China" and "The Death of Klinghoffer," a musical about the aftermath of the 1994 Los Angeles earthquake, and his Pulitzer-winning "On the Transmigration of Souls," commemorating Sept. 11, 2001.

But now, Adams — who turned 60 this month — is going old-fashioned, with an opera about something phantasmagorical and exotic. "A Flowering Tree," which will have its American premiere by the co-commissioning San Francisco Symphony this week, has a mythical subject.

Adams and his frequent collaborator, the director Peter Sellars, wrote a libretto based on an ancient southern Indian folk tale about a young woman who can turn herself into a tree. She sacrifices her human form in order to enable her sisters to sell flowers from the tree to help their old, sick mother. The plot thickens as a prince falls in love with the girl, and her transformations create a dramatic conflict with the expectations of domestic bliss.

Unlike most operas, "Tree" has a happy ending, as this multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, eminently colorful work reunites prince and girl-again tree. The hope is that the production will make the story clear, even against the complexities of its language: the choral sections are in Spanish, the soloists sing in English.

The story is ancient, the music is modern, but accessibly so, anchored in and reflecting some of finest 20th century idiom, notably those of Ives, Janacek and Mahler. As always, Adams also shows his minimalist roots, but in a rich, substantially varied package.

As at the opera’s world premiere in Vienna in November, Adams will conduct the work himself at the "semi-staged" performances in Davies Hall. At European performances, "Tree" had a veritable United Nations of a cast, with Indonesian dancers Rusini Sidi, Eko Supriyanto, Astri Kusama Wardani, the Joven Camerata de Venezuela and the Schola Cantorum de Caracas.

Principal singers coming to San Francisco are young singers just now rising to prominence: soprano Jessica Rivera and tenor Russell Thomas, both making their local debut. They join bass Eric Owens, already heard here in symphony appearances, and as Gen. Leslie Groves in Adams’ "Doctor Atomic" at the San Francisco Opera.


John Adams’

‘A Flowering Tree’

Presented by: San Francisco Symphony

Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco

When: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday


Contact: (415) 864-6000 or

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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