A Chinese Makeover For European Opera

Li Shuang as the hero, Xiang Yu, and Ruan Yuqun, as Yu Ji, rehearse
Li Shuang as the hero, Xiang Yu, and Ruan Yuqun, as Yu Ji, rehearse "Farewell My Concubine," a Chinese story that was transformed into a Western-style opera sung in Mandarin, a task that took former top conductor Xiao Bai more than 18 years to complete. The cast is scheduled to present the opera in six U.S. cities early next year. (China National Opera House)
By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 16, 2007

BEIJING -- The house was packed with an invitation-only audience, including a former foreign minister and China's top cultural official. As floodlights turned the stage blood red, a chorus of voices conveyed the anxiety and terror of an ancient Chinese battlefield.

"It's the fire of hatred, it's the fire of victory, burning, burning," the chorus sang in Mandarin, in one of the few Western-style operas here based on a Chinese story and composed and performed by Chinese artists.

Last month's operatic premiere of "Farewell My Concubine" was only the latest example of an increasingly confident China ramping up its cultural acts to compete with the Western stage. It was also part of an effort to keep opera alive by appealing to sophisticated urban Chinese who these days prefer Western entertainment.

China has recently invited world-class dancers from the West to work with its National Ballet, and a state-owned cultural exchange agency is teaming up with Cameron Mackintosh, producer of "Les Mis┬┐rables," "Cats" and "The Phantom of the Opera," to stage Chinese-language versions of Western musicals. With "Farewell My Concubine," producers hoped that a Chinese story would bring in new audiences unfamiliar with Western-style opera.

"Since we are a big country with a long history of culture, we should master opera," said Liu Xijin, director of the National Opera House. "To develop Western opera in China, we need to persistently perform the world's classical works well."

"Only after we present good operas can we attract more and more young audiences, and by presenting Western opera with Chinese stories, it's easier for Chinese audiences to understand and accept it," he added.

While Chinese officials are fond of invoking their 5,000 years of culture and history, signs of it are often in short supply.

China already has Peking opera, a more theatrical and traditional art form featuring a sparse stage, colorful costumes and often a higher-pitched singing style. But Peking opera was popular only until the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and '70s, at which point it was seen as too bourgeois and most performances were banned. Although it has tried to modernize to appeal to younger audiences, Peking opera has never quite regained its popular footing. These days it's a favorite mostly among the elderly.

Western-style opera, on the other hand, is growing in popularity, even though it continues to be prohibitively expensive for many. Opera singers say that there are more places to study and perform than ever before, and that increasingly worldly Chinese know that Western opera is a mark of sophistication.

"I believe that more and more people will like opera, since it stands for the highest form of art. Music teachers from other provinces tell me their students all want to watch opera, but the tickets are too expensive," said Ruan Yuqun, 25, who graduated from the Central Conservatory of Music this summer and performed the lead female role of Yu Ji in "Farewell My Concubine."

Last year, performers from the National Opera House toured 20 universities, singing highlights from "Carmen," "Madama Butterfly" and "La Traviata." At Chongqing University in southern Sichuan province, more than 10,000 students stood in the rain to hear the music.

"Students would stand outside the hall to listen if they couldn't afford the tickets. They didn't want to leave even after our performance finished," said Liu, the director. "They felt the Western style of music is fresh, so they like it. It's different from our Chinese music."

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