A Night at the Opera

A few weekends ago my DH and I took the High Speed Train from Beijing to the city of Wuhan which sits astride the great Yangtze river, some 1060 kms south of here. We were going to the Opera.

In September last year the San Francisco Opera debuted a new work which they had commissioned, ‘The Dream of the Red Chamber’, th-2which ran for eight nights to huge public acclaim. With a Chinese composer and librettist re-imagining one of the four great novels of China, and turning it into a western style opera which would be sung in English by Chinese singers. The composer was Chinese-American Bright Sheng, who wrote the libretto together with David Henry Hwang

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We have a dear friend, Wray Armstrong, who is a classical music/opera Impresario here in China. His company brings orchestras, solo players, choirs, etc from the west to perform here; and they are tremendously well received.

Our friend decided to take the huge commercial gamble of bringing the whole DRC opera production from San Francisco to China where it toured 3 cities: Beijing, Changsha, and Wuhan. No-one was sure how the Chinese critics and public would react to a western opera based on this quintessentially Chinese book. Suffice to say it was a HUGE hit.

We were in the UK when the Opera opened in Beijing and then moved to Changsha – where it had been chosen as the opening performance for Changsha’s new and beautiful opera house. This amazing piece of architecture by the late British architect Zaida Hadid was the last project to be built before her untimely death.

We were so happy to be invited attend the last night of the run in Wuhan; we would not have missed it for the world. Wuhan’s opera house is about 10 years old, purpose built, with fantastic acoustics it seats nearly 2000, and it was packed out for the performance we attended.

‘The Dream of the Red Chamber’ (aka ‘The Story of the Stone’) is a fantastic work of literature written in the mid 18th century, all Chinese know of this book even if they have never read it.*  Over many years the book has been adapted into various Chinese Operas, into ballets, and several Chinese TV series – the 1987 series was very, very popular in China.

The book /story is ideal operatic material, lots of action, romance, etc. and the librettist has done it proud by taking actual lines from the book which work really well with the music. Of course it is important – as it is with any opera – that the th-4performers are first class, and in this production they certainly were. All but one of the main characters were played by Chinese singers -some from mainland China, some ABC (American Born Chinese), some Malaysian or Singaporean Chinese.

A Ukrainian opera choir who specialize in providing choruses for operas came out to China to join the production, and they were stunning. I discovered that the production team had tried to get a ‘Chinese’ chorus, specifically from the great singing choruses of the PLA (People’s Liberation Army), but the PLA musical director said it would take them a year at least to learn how to sing in a western opera as it is so out of their experience.

The opera is in two acts with an interval between them. As yet, the Chinese opera going audience has not got the idea of having a glass of wine, a beer, ice-cream or soft drink during the interval – they just go out of the theatre and mill about. Many men rush outside to have a quick ciggie (same as in the UK!!).

The sets were stunning, and the costumes – oh my word! absolutely fantastic – the whole performance was a treat for the eyes. I absolutely loved it.

Spoiler  alert!                                                                                                                                      The opera does not end on a happy-ever-after note. The heroine, Daiyu, walks into the raging river and is drowned, and the hero, Baoyu, becomes a Buddhist monk, wandering the world with his begging bowl.th-3

As the opera was coming to an end, and Daiyu was walking into the river, I became aware that the two young women seated behind me were in floods of tears, so touched by the sad denouement. What greater accolade can there be than that singers have moved their audience to tears?

There was a well deserved standing ovation, and the cast were called back again and again by the applause of the audience, bouquets were delivered, the conductor and orchestra were cheered to the max. Finally the curtain fell.

As the auditorium emptied, I was surprised to be told that my DH and I were invited to go up on to the stage to meet the cast. It was a first for me, to be on the stage of a huge opera house. Because it was the end of the final performance, and had gone so well, the cast were high as kites – absolutely euphoric!

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I congratulated and hugged so many of them, I took photos, photos of me with cast members were taken, everyone was laughing and smiling, it was a wonderful experience.  The lead soprano, Wu He, who sang the part of Daiyu was so interesting. She is from China but for the past few years has studied at the Royal School of Music, specifically at the Guildhall School in London, and she has sung in various operas in Europe. Wu He is still very young and is building her career, which I have no doubt will be stellar.  But the singer who stood out for me above all, was the young tenor, Yuan Li,

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The next day, on the four hour train journey back to Beijing, I thought about how wonderful it had been to spend  A Night at the Opera.

 

*My previous blog post is a quick crib on the book which has been turned into this opera.

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The Dream of the Red Chamber – China’s Downton Abbey

‘The Story of the Stone’ by Cao Xueqin is more familiarly called ‘The Dream of the Red Chamber’ (DRC). Written in the mid 18th Century, it is considered one of the four ‘great’ literary works of China.

In fact, I think it is one of the greatest novels in the world.

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The original book is daunting – the highly acclaimed English translation by David Hawkes and John Minford – which is published by Penguin Classics, is in five volumes, with over 2500 pages in total, featuring at least 50 main protagonists and an additional 400 characters in the book.

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For many western (and Chinese) readers the thought of reading it is just too much.  People in the UK who say that they find the idea of reading the great Russian classic ‘War & Peace’ difficult, would tremble before this behemoth of a book which is double the length of W&P!

‘Too long, too difficult, too many names which are hard to pronounce let-alone remember…’,  that is what people think about the full version. Chinese school children – who are all taught about the book – are only ever given shortish extracts to read.

However, if one perseveres it really is well worth reading, and deserves to be better known in the West.

Some western literary critics compare it with Shakespeare, and, like the works of the Immortal BardEroticism-and-Other-Literary-Conventions-in-Chinese-Literature-Intertextuality-in-The-Story-of-the-Stone-Cambria-Sinophone-World-Series.jpg  the DRC is studied, pored over and dissected by scholars who write serious books about aspects of the novel – there is now a whole field of study known in China as ‘Redology’.

Over the years DRC has been turned into Chinese Operas, several ballets, and more than one TV series here in China. In addition there have been countless ‘re-interpretations’ of the book.

Personally I think the DRC is like Downton Abbey but set in 18th century China!

The book tells the story of the Jia family, who are rich and well-connected, living  luxurious Rongguo Mansion in Beijing during the Qing dynasty.  The story goes from how the Jia family rose to prominence to how they fell from grace when the political tide turned against them, their mansion was raided and trashed by Imperial troops, with the senior males being thrown into jail and the women reduced to penury.

The cast of characters, as I said before, is huge but the main protagonists are the elderly matriarch, Lady Jia, her son Duke Jia Zheng who is currently head of the family, his spoilt son Baoyu, his nieces Daiyu and Baocai, daughter-in-law Xifeng and her weak husband Jia Lian, family friend Mrs Xue who’s wild son Xue Pan is the cause of many problems, as well as the adult children of  Jia Zheng’s concubine; and last but not least, the many servants/slaves who work for them in their huge sprawling compound.

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It would take too long to try and outline the story which has plots within plots, suffice to say that there are love affairs, jockeying for favour, arranged marriages, fears, betrayals, sex, arguments, deaths, jealousies – indeed all human emotions and relationships are there in spadeth-1.jpgs.

This main story is framed by another tale – that of a sentient Stone who prevails upon a Buddhist monk and a Taoist priest to have them take the Stone with them into the world where it can experience the human realm.  At the end, this framing tale has the primary male character Baoyu, who is purportedly born with a jade stone in his mouth,  becoming a monk and wandering the world. This is why the book is also known by the title ‘The Story of the Stone’

The daily lives of such a family and their servants is wonderfully depicted – what they eat and drink, what they wear, how they amuse themselves; how the houses are furnished, the make-up the women wear, the jewellery, the way servants are treated. Sons are expected to study hard for the Imperial Examinations, but needless to say they don’t always do so, they go out on the town, get drunk, have fights, seduce girls. The women gossip, learn household management, stroll in the gardens, have illicit love affairs, play musical instruments and bicker with one another…

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Cao Xueqin wrote the first 80 chapters of the book loosely based on the experiences of his own family. After he died Gao E ‘finished’ the book with a further 40 chapters – though many Redology scholars think he based them on drafts prepared by Cao Xueqin, the arguments over this rage on!                                                                         What Gao E certainly did was to get the book published in print form – in 1791 AD. Prior to that year it had only been copied by hand and passed around.

For anyone who would like to read the story, but feels daunted by the 5 volume original translation, there is a recent novel by Pauline Chen, ‘The Red Chamber’, in which she has ‘re-imagined’ the tale, but cut it down to the core characters, and I highly recommend it.  Well written, with most of the descriptions of life in the Jia family mansion kept intact it is a cracking read, I enjoyed it very much.

 

 

 

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After months away, I’m back in Beijing!

It is over three months since I wrote a blog post – why? because I have been away from China; first I spent 10 happy days at Woods Hole on Cape Cod with my daughter, son-in-law, and grandsons.

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Then I was in Fife (north east Scotland) with my Mum for a while, then down in London for 10 days, then back in Scotland again.

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So much to-ing and fro-ing!!  Still it meant I spent time with family and friends; was able to visit the fabulous house my sister and b-in-law have built in the Scottish borders; attended the English wedding reception of Beijing friends; got my eyes tested and ordered new lenses/specs etc; and filled my lungs with clean Scottish air!!

We also had various friends come to visit in Fife which was wonderful. One couple who are old Beijing pals were on a mega tour of Britain and it was great, if slightly surreal, to see them in our small fishing village rather than on the Great Wall* which is their natural habitat!

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Not such ‘lucky’ coins

Last week the Chinese media was busy commenting on the case of an elderly woman called Mrs Qiu, 80 years old and with limited mobility, she was going on her first flight accompanied by some family members.

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The flight was on China Southern Airlines CZ380 from Shanghai’s Pudong airport to Guangzhou. The plane was on the ‘apron’ at the airport so the 150 passengers were bused to it from the airport buildings, and then had to board by climbing the attached stairway.

Half-way up the stairway, Mrs Qiu threw nine coins towards one of the engines – “to prevent disaster and make it a lucky flight”.  Eight coins fell on the ground but one fell into the engine.

The flight was due to take off at 12.40pm, but Mrs Qiu’s actions meant that the flight had to be delayed as if they had taken off, a coin in one of the jet engines could have caused a catastrophic failure. It took until 4.35pm for the engine to be thoroughly searched and the coin retrieved. The flight finally took off at 6.16 pm.

I would imagine that everyone – passengers, captain and crew, airport officials, etc were totally pissed-off with the situation.  Mrs Qiu was arrested and charged with endangering a flight.

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The value of the coins she threw amounted to 1.7 yuan – approximately 19p in British money.

Latest info is that she has been given a suspended sentence, and that China Southern Airlines will not let her fly with them again. Not surprising really.

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PANDA PORN

What I do to keep you all up to date with what is going on in China beggars belief.

Recently I read -in the Chinese press –  about the latest initiative in the battle to get panda’s to procreate.  Bare in mind that most adult male pandas like nothing more than sitting around munching on bamboo, and the adult females are much the same.

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They are the couch potatoes of the animal world.  The idea of conjugal relations hardly ever enters their heads.

So some bright spark came up with the idea of Panda Pornography!

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I kid you not… apparently male pandas when shown video footage of other pandas getting it away, get the idea and become more sexually active.

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Yes, that is the plan; actually it is quite an old plan and has been active for a year or two. And it has had some results, but not overwhelmingly good results.

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The new twist is that a ‘well known pornography website’ has offered cash rewards to its members if they will dress up as pandas and indulge in some ‘Panda porn’  then post it on-line to help male pandas to get their mojo going and do the biz.

Honestly folks, I am not making this up!

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What ever it takes, if it results in more baby pandas, I’m all for it!

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Sunday roast – haunch of Chinese Water Deer?

Last weekend I was enjoying a skype chat with my old school friend Marj who now lives in Norfolk (UK); she mentioned that her partner had been given a piece of Chinese Water Deer (CWD) to cook by someone who shoots locally. She asked me if I’d eaten it in China.

Well, no I hadn’t, and what is more I’d never heard of it.  Time for some investigating..and very interesting it turned out to be.

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Chinese Water Deer (Hydropotes inermis inermis) are native to China and some parts of South Korea. They are a small stocky animal fairly similar to the Musk Deer. As their name suggests they live in the tall reeds and grasses of wetlands or marshy areas beside streams and rivers, where they feed on the  rushes, sedges, and coarse grasses which grow in such places.

They are the only type of deer where the male does not produce antlers, but they have something else – tusks  – two long canine teeth which protrude about 2-3 inches below the deer’s mouth.  Because of this they are often referred to as Vampire Deer.

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Although they are not an ‘endangered’ species in China, the population is considered vulnerable, therefore they are protected. In fact there are now almost as many CWD in England where the population is increasing as there are in China where they are in decline.

So how is it that they are now living and being hunted in East Anglia?

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Back in the 19th Century, Herbrand Russell 11th Duke of Bedford acquired new species for the deer park at his stately home Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire. He collected 42 varieties of dear from around the world, and in 1896 some

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Chinese Water Deer were added to the park.  At the time several managed to escape and it is from these escapees that the wild population has grown.images-10.jpg

Most venison has little if any fat, but the CWD has a thick layer of fat across its back which means that the meat is less dry than venison from other species. Some people claim it tastes more like lamb than venison.  What did you and Nick think Marj?

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Would you allow your kids to do this?

Over the time I have been blogging I have often mentioned the traffic in Beijing.

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The city has a population of well over 25 million (the government are trying to cut it back to 22 million as the total number) This number of people has generated a huge number of cars – approximately 5 million!  – not counting  lorries, government cars, vans, bicycles, rickshaws, huge pantechnicons , delivery tri-bikes, etc.etc.

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Needless to say, this melange of traffic causes many problems – traffic jams, accidents etc.  When out and about in BJ I am very careful crossing roads because many drivers ignore red lights when turning, and even jump red lights at intersections.

As a pedestrian you have to be on the alert at all times.

Chinese pedestrians who are waiting to cross junctions often pay no heed to the ‘little red man’ warning them not to cross. The traffic situation is dire, and there are many accidents.

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So – some bright spark in the Beijing Traffic Department (I assume that is the name of the body) has come up with a whizzo idea.

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Dress school kids in red/orange/green outfits, to emulate a traffic light, then teach them a song and dance and send them out to stand in the middle of the six most dangerous road junctions in the city. This will apparently shame drivers into stopping until the light changes in their favour….really?!!

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What? WHAT!!!!! are they crazy? do we want to see dead school kids anytime soon?

I think not.

Apparently the kids have been selected from state schools which are located near these junctions. Do their parents even  know what they are doing?

 

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