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’, which 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
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 performers 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.
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!
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,
who played Baoyu, the leading man. He had been drafted in to sing after the tenor who sang in Beijing and Changsha was unable to continue. He had had a short time to learn the part, but his voice and stage presence were stunning.
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.