At a Beijing Opera Festival, a Touch of Nostalgia for Redder Days

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 15, 2009

BEIJING, June 14 -- The heroine on stage strikes a noble pose and launches into one of the hit tunes of the night, a classic aria, " I Give My Youth to Communism," from the operetta "Jiang Jie."

The National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing is in the middle of its first opera festival. The event is conceived on a scale to match the huge glass-domed building: 13 operas in 79 days involving 10 opera companies, both national (Shanghai Opera) and international (Teatro Regio di Parma), and more than 2,000 artists.

Some of the operas are traditional Western fare: "La Boheme," "Rigoletto," "Turandot." But four of them are Chinese, and of these, two are vintage works of socialist realism: "The Red Guards on Honghu Lake" and "Jiang Jie" (or "Sister Jiang"), which opened on Thursday for a run of three performances by the Art Troupe of the Air Force Political Department of the People's Liberation Army.

Once upon a time, revolutionary opera was forced down the Chinese people's throats. For years during the Cultural Revolution, the only approved entertainment in China was eight "model operas" developed under and with Mao's wife, Jiang Qing. (They weren't actually all operas; they included two ballets and a symphonic piece.) "Jiang Jie" predates the model operas -- it was written in 1963 -- but it is an old-style revolutionary opera, a recognizable symbol of the intense days of communism. So you might think its presence at the opera festival, performed by a military song and dance troupe, is an obligation imposed by the government.

Except that this festival sells tickets on the free market. Those tickets aren't cheap. And the audience for "Jiang Jie" on Friday night is large, and notably involved. "Why doesn't Jiang Jie mention Chairman Mao?" comes the loud question from a little boy too young to know he's supposed to talk to his parents in a whisper during the show. In short, this revolutionary opera is family entertainment. And people want to see it.

For some years now, China has seen a brisk trade in Mao-era nostalgia. You can see Red Guard hats on teenagers walking through the Forbidden City, or book a table at a Cultural Revolution-themed restaurant where the food is deliberately coarsened to make it approximate that of China's lean years, and floor shows present revolutionary songs and dances like the "loyalty dance" to the Chairman (whose image still graces the front of Tiananmen Square).

Mao's revolution was fueled by music from the beginning. In the 1930s and '40s when his movement was first taking shape, the daily program included singing appropriate songs for half an hour every morning. In a 1942 talk, Mao called for a popular art that could reach the masses. One direct response was an opera called "The White-Haired Girl," which led to a flowering of a particular brand of Chinese opera or "new opera," like "Jiang Jie," written with Western instruments, a large admixture of folk tunes and the proper revolutionary sentiments.

Mao's goal succeeded, at least in that many of these works remain popular. Revolutionary songs remain a staple for Chinese singers, many of whom defend their quality and point out that they were a lot better than some subsequent efforts along the same lines.

On Friday, "Jiang Jie" had people in the audience humming along as the heroine, one of a group of brave communists in 1948, stoutly defended her loyalty to the Communist Party, withstood torture and died bravely at the hands of a firing squad before ascending something that in this production looked like a Mayan pyramid, in an apotheosis of posthumous glory.

The current revival of the piece (a staple of the Air Force Art Troupe's repertory) certainly does nothing to dim the work's heightened, socialist-realist light. Yet in the name of popularization, "Jiang Jie" is inscribed in an established tragicomic tradition, peopled with stock figures familiar in a range of genres. It offers the upright heroine, the military villain (Tosca, anyone?), and the pert, independent serving-woman who speaks her mind and offers tart common sense (Yang Ersao, the character who runs the open-air tavern where the revolutionaries and locals and enemy soldiers cross paths, is cousin to Mozart's Despina).

Its vocal lines -- Jiang Jie's part, in particular, which was sung on Friday by Yi Hongyuan -- are more nasal, high and piercing than the Western ideal, and, not surprisingly, bear a Chinese pentatonic coloring. Still, this is a traditional "number" piece, in form more Broadway musical than opera either Chinese or Western, shored up by stirring songs and choruses, arcing lines from a solo violin or full-voiced baying from the orchestra (led by Jiang Xiebin in full military regalia, as befits an Air Force officer).

Even for the audience that enjoyed it, revisiting this kind of thing is ultimately more an act of appropriation than of homage. Revolutionary opera has become not a duty but a commodity, something one can purchase and enjoy. It has therefore become a part of the capitalist society it was attempting to teach people to overthrow.

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