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Friday, February 22, 2019, 11:07
In tune with the spirit of China
By Peter Gordon
Friday, February 22, 2019, 11:07 By Peter Gordon

Hong Kong Arts Festival has a sustained tradition of supporting opera adaptations based on Chinese literature, mythology and history, writes Peter Gordon

Madame White Snake, based on a Chinese tale of unfulfilled longing between a human and an immortal, and sung in English, features in Hong Kong Arts Festival 2019. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

China is a bright spot in the global growth of opera. This year’s Hong Kong Arts Festival (HKAF) offering, Madame White Snake, follows on the heels of last year’s Dream of the Red Chamber — also an opera by a Chinese composer to an English-language libretto, based on a well-known Chinese story. The LA Times opened its review of the San Francisco premiere of Dream of the Red Chamber with “The world needs more Chinese opera. China needs it too. China has some 29 opera houses. Only Italy, Germany, the US and Russia have more... But China does not yet have enough of its own notable opera to fill them. America can help.” Organizations like HKAF and composers like Madame White Snake’s Zhou Long have an important role to play in helping this fusion to come about.

HKAF has offered smaller Chinese chamber operas before. In 2015, the festival commissioned and produced Datong: The Chinese Utopia, an operatic retelling of the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) reformer and philosopher Kang Youwei and his daughter and companion in exile, Kang Tongbi. Wenji: Eighteen Songs of a Nomad Flute, based on the life of the second-century poet and musician Cai Wenji, was performed at HKAF 2002. In 1999, the festival showed Guo Wenjing’s Night Banquet, set in the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and inspired by a period court painting. HKAF has often produced or co-commissioned new Chinese opera productions, rather than just serving as a platform to showcase them.

The classic 18th-century novel Dream of the Red Chamber was reinvented as an opera put on by Hong Kong Arts Festival in 2018. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Arguably a pioneering work, Madame White Snake is composed by Zhou Long to an English-language libretto by Cerise Lim Jacobs and is being given its Hong Kong premiere at HKAF’s 47th edition. The work was the first opera ever commissioned by Opera Boston and debuted there in 2010. Co-commissioned by the Beijing Music Festival Arts Foundation, it was performed in Beijing the same year. In 2011, Long won the Pulitzer Prize for Music. Given the proportion of new operas that depart the repertory after a single run, that it is being revived several years after its premiere speaks in its favor.

Best of both worlds

A folk tale no doubt familiar to Chinese audiences, Madame White Snake is a staple of traditional Chinese opera and has also been adapted for dance, drama, musical theater, literature and film. The eponymous protagonist has slept for 1,000 years and wakes to find herself transformed from an immortal demon to a very human woman. She recognizes Xu Xian, a herbalist, as her lover from a previous life. They marry, despite the jealousy of her servant Xiao Qing, and Madame White Snake finds herself pregnant. Her true nature, however, is discovered by an abbot who, fearful of the consequences of a half-demon, half-human child, intervenes with fatal and tragic consequences. The opera’s four acts run through the seasons, bookended by a prologue and epilogue.

Datong: The Chinese Utopia figured in Hong Kong Arts Festival 2015. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Although a modern work, there is much that that will be familiar to opera-goers used to traditional fare. Tragic liaisons between humans and immortals are a common theme in Western mythology as well: in opera, Antonín Dvorák’s Rusalka comes to mind. This was deliberate. Composer Zhou himself commented that “together, the Chinese story with English narrative, this legendary opera is more in line with the aesthetic habits of Western audiences”.

George Bernard Shaw once defined opera as “when a tenor and soprano want to make love, but are prevented from doing so by a baritone”. The lovers here are soprano Susannah Biller and tenor Peter Tantsits. The lower-register singer who mucks it all up is the locally-resident bass Gong Dong-jian as the abbot. Xiao Qing, the third wheel in the love triangle, is, in a bit of gender-bending, sung by a male soprano — something of a rarity — Michael Maniaci. With the sole exception of Biller, the cast reprises that of the Boston premier (at which Madame White Snake was sung by Ying Huang).

A multicultural cast will perform in Madame White Snake’s Hong Kong shows. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

The presence of so many non-Chinese singers in a Chinese opera may be a surprise, but if Chinese sopranos can sing Tosca, then there is no reason why American singers cannot return the favor. Opera is just that sort of multicultural, multi-lingual genre. And while composer Zhou uses Chinese instruments — Chinese flutes, erhu, etc. — in addition to the more traditional instruments of the opera orchestra pit, there is much about the music that may sound familiar as well: arias, duets that seemingly draw inspiration from early 20th-century Western opera with perhaps a hint of musical theater.

The most famous opera in the standard repertoire with a Chinese theme — Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot — had as its sources a Persian fairy tale and some Chinese tunes from a Swiss music box, purchased in a Shanghai department store and brought back to Italy. While other Western art forms, from oil painting and film to concertos and ballet, have been adopted and filtered by Chinese artists to emerge as multi-faceted Chinese takes in by now universal genres, opera has been relatively late to this party. HKAF is helping it catch up.

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