Filled with bamboo, pine and plum blossoms, the Chinese Garden at the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens is one of the city’s loveliest places to while away an afternoon. In May, the 15-acre space will break in a new outdoor performance area, the Terrace of Shared Delights, to stage a production of “On Gold Mountain,” an opera based on author Lisa See’s bestselling book about her Chinese American family’s immigrant experience in California.
The Huntington is presenting the show in collaboration with L.A. Opera, which originally commissioned it in the late ’90s as part of its “Voices of California” series. The opera, directed by Jennifer Chang, with a score by Nathan Wang and libretto by See, premiered in 2000 at the Aratani Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. The staging at the Huntington, which runs from May 5 to May 15, will be the opera’s second run.
“To me, there is something extraordinary about ‘On Gold Mountain’ being produced in the Huntington’s Chinese Garden,” See told The Times in an email. “After all, Henry Huntington, as a railroad and real estate businessman in the late 19th and early 20th century, had a complicated history with the Chinese. But here we are all these years later, bringing that very history — and the history of my family and the Chinese in Los Angeles — to the Chinese Garden, which is not only beautiful in its traditional design but is also a recognition of the importance of Chinese Americans to our city.”
The sweeping, tender story of See’s family is well suited for operatic interpretation. When he was 14 years old, See’s great-grandfather, Fong See, emigrated from China to California to search for his father; he faced substantial discrimination and challenges in 19th century America. He remained determined and ambitious, eventually becoming a successful businessman. He fell in love with a white American woman, Lettice “Ticie” Pruett, and, despite laws against interracial marriage, the couple wed and had five children. The antique shop that Fong See opened in Los Angeles’ Chinatown is still owned by the family.
“My great-grandparents were pioneers. They came from different directions and cultures to settle in Los Angeles. They were ‘married’ when it was against the law for Chinese and whites to be wed in the state. They started a business that is now one of the oldest family-owned enterprises in California,” See told The Times. “Despite the laws that targeted Chinese — and Fong See and Ticie quite specifically — they were able to achieve the American Dream.
“It’s wonderful that the opera based on their lives is being mounted in the Chinese Garden,” See added. “It’s a recognition of how far our city and state have come in terms of immigration and issues of racism — and how far we still have to go.”
The Huntington Library holds archives from the See family as part of the Lisa See Collection and the Gilbert, Florence, and Leslee See Leong Collection. Photographs and documents from the archives will be used in the new production.
Wang is currently a Cheng Family Foundation visiting artist in the Chinese Garden. His musical score blends Western and traditional Chinese music, and it will be performed by an orchestra composed of members of the L.A. Opera Orchestra and student musicians from the community. Casting for the production is underway.
Tickets for “On Gold Mountain” go on sale Feb. 15; they are $135 for Huntington members and $150 for non-members. For details, visit huntington.org/on-gold-mountain.