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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)

Five years ago, the National Opera House was the only venue to produce operas; now operas are being staged by the China National Symphony Orchestra, China Opera, the Shanghai Opera House and the Central Conservatory of Music.

"I hope to present to the outside world what we can attain in opera," Ruan said. "In terms of singing and performing, we are not worse than the international standard, I think. The difference is that we are young, and we lack experience on stage."

Transforming a Chinese story into a Western opera is a challenge. In the case of "Farewell My Concubine," a former top conductor in Shanghai said he spent more than 18 years working on it. The story is based on the aftermath of a historical battle at the end of the Qin dynasty.

"How to integrate a 400-year-old European form of art into traditional Chinese culture and Chinese character, into a 2,000-year-old Chinese story, really takes effort," said Xiao Bai, 75, who labored in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. "During these 18 years, we held two concerts and edited the work a lot."

In addition, singing in Mandarin is harder than in Italian, the performers said. "I have to fully pronounce the changing tones for each Chinese character, which involves lots of changes on lips, teeth, tongue and so on," Ruan said. "But the pronunciation of Italian words seems to be smoother while singing."

Xiao never thought he'd see his music and play on stage, let alone in such dramatic fashion. Thanks to sponsorship by the Chinese American Inter-Cultural Exchange Foundation, a Dallas-based nonprofit organization, the cast of "Farewell My Concubine" will soon tour six U.S. cities, including Washington, where a January appearance at DAR Constitution Hall is planned.

It's an unusual opportunity, because many Chinese cultural institutions have been weaned from the state and do not have the funds to support such a trip.

"After Italian opera came the French, the German and the Russian opera," Xiao said. "They all employed the same basic elements of opera but told different kinds of stories -- all the composers tried hard to figure out one thing -- how to incorporate the art with their own culture. Why shouldn't China try to find the answer as well? If we can make it, we might become the fifth country in the opera world."

The Oct. 12 premiere won over Feng Ying, 23, an administrator at the China Society of Land Economics who attended the show.

"If it's a Western story sung in a foreign language, I don't know if I would enjoy it as much as this. It's in Chinese and about Chinese history, so it feels familiar to me," she said. "I was touched by the deep love between the hero Xiang Yu and his concubine Yu Ji."

Researcher Li Jie contributed to this report.

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