“DREAM OF THE RED CHAMBER” is not a run-of-the-mill production for the San Francisco Opera, America’s second-largest company. To be sung in English, it had to be adapted from a 2,500-page 18th-century Chinese novel. Its principal cast members are all Asian. Most members of the creative team—composer, librettist, stage director and production designer—have Chinese backgrounds. None of this is a hindrance. Three-quarters of the tickets for the opera’s full run, which began on September 10th, were sold a month ahead of the premiere. And it has set a new record for San Francisco’s most expensive opening-gala table: $250,000 for 10 people.

One obvious reason for the success is enthusiastic support from the Chinese-American community, which is proud to see China’s most celebrated piece of literature introduced to a wider audience. “Dream of the Red Chamber”, also known as “The Story of the Stone”, is to Chinese people as Shakespeare is to English speakers. But unlike Shakespeare, it remains virtually unknown outside its home country.

The story follows the rise and fall of the noble Jia Family. At the beginning of the novel, the family is wealthy and powerful, thanks in part to one daughter being the emperor’s new concubine. But the heir to the family fortune, Jia Baoyu, is a headache. He has no interest in politics and prefers a carefree life in mansions, pavilions and sculpted gardens. Despite the occasional troubles common to such a big wealthy family, life is a pure aesthetic delight: breathtaking architecture, delicate cuisine, nature’s changing scenery, music, art and poetry. His family hopes to pair Baoyu with Xue Baochai, a cousin who could connect them to another wealthy family, but he falls in love with his brilliant cousin, Lin Daiyu. As the star-crossed lovers careen towards a tragic end, the family falls on hard times. After the emperor’s concubine dies, its wealth and power ebbs away.

Reading the novel is both a treat and a challenge. This expansive saga presents charming characters, especially women, but it is arduous work to know who’s who—there are at least 700 characters, and over 30 could be identified as main characters. It’s an encyclopaedia of Chinese culture: poetry, painting, music, medicine, rituals, cuisine, clothing, Buddhism and Daoism, all woven seamlessly into the plot. These incredible details allow a fascinating peek into daily life amid the Ming and Qing dynasties (though the novel is vaguely set in a fictional era). It is even modern in the way it invites reader participation: riddles and puns hint at the development of the story and the fate of the characters.

The fact that it lacks an ending also adds to its enchantment. Only 80 chapters in the current 120-chapter version can be attributed to the author Cao Xueqin, and other writers contributed the rest later based on original writings and speculation. Generations of scholars and readers have been so intrigued by its provenance that they developed a discipline—“redology”—to interpret the book. The novel was banned during the Cultural Revolution, but even Mao claimed he had read it at least five times and recommended it to his comrades.

Over the years, “Dream of the Red Chamber” has been adapted into all kinds of genres: local Chinese opera forms, dance, film and television. But rendering it as a Western opera is perhaps the trickiest. After all, how do you condense a novel so detailed and subtle into a couple of hours of aria? How do you choose between the risk of disappointing a Chinese audience and alienating a non-Chinese audience?

Librettist David Henry Hwang’s answer is you cannot. The Chinese-American playwright, best known for his Tony Award winning “M. Butterfly”, turned down the project at first. Bright Sheng, the project’s composer, won him over, and they created a plot that focused on the love triangle between Baoyu, Daiyu and Baochai. They sought a heartfelt tragedy with universal appeal, and gave the novel’s narrative some modern tweaks. Ann Waltner, a history professor at the University of Minnesota who teaches a course about the “Dream of the Red Chamber”, describes it as a reframing of Chinese traditions to fit global modern life. (The opera got its start in Minnesota, with funding from a Chinese heritage foundation in the city.)

The job of retaining cultural sophistication has been left to stage director Stan Lai and production designer Tim Yip. Mr Lai, one of China’s most revered theatre directors, praised Mr Hwang’s slightly distant view of the story. Mr Hwang does not read Chinese and had never read the novel before he took on the work. “Anyone who knows the novel too well wouldn’t be capable of making big cuts,” Mr Lai says. It is the visuals, he said, that will give full effect to the novel’s intricate personal relationships, politics and contemporary social norms. This is a smart strategy. Choices and compromises are inevitable. Those who already know “Dream of the Red Chamber” will be able to pick up on the subtle messages contained within its staging. For everyone else, the challenge is to make it an enjoyable opera.