'Marco Polo' to enthrall opera lovers in Beijing with global cast

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A stage photo of opera "Marco Polo." [photo provided to chinadaily.com.cn]

"Marco Polo," an original Chinese opera production based on the story of the Venetian explorer who traveled along the ancient Silk Road in the 13th century, will meet Beijing audience on May 16, 18 and 19.

The new stage production congregates a star-studded lineup with producers and singers from countries including China, Denmark, Germany and the United Kingdom. It will be performed at Tianqiao Performing Arts Center in Chinese, with both English and Chinese subtitles provided on theater screens. 

Set in late Song Dynasty (960-1279), the play unfolds Marco Polo's epic adventure to the East as well as his touching romance with a Chinese woman named Chuanyun. The story starts from a Genoese jail in Italy, where Polo shared his China travel with a fellow inmate. It revolves around trade and cultural exchange between the East and West, filled with conflicts between justice and evil, civilization and savage, and love and separation. 

A starry international cast is featured, including director Kasper Holten, who is former director of opera for the Royal Opera House in London, music composer Enjott Schneider from Germany, and opera writer Wei Jin - who is also a Chinese poet. Cast members include Danish tenor Peter Lodahl as leading actor Marco Polo, Chinese soprano Zhou Xiaolin as leading actress Chuanyun, British baritone Jonathan Gunthorpe as Marco Polo's father Nicolo Polo and British baritone Damian Thantrey as Marco Polo's uncle Maffeo Polo.

Talking with media on Monday, composer Schneider said he has used traditional Chinese instruments to add an Eastern touch into the Western story-telling style, such as erhu (a two-stringed bowed instrument), flute and pipa (a four-stringed instrument). The show's music will be played by Tianjin Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Chinese Grammy-winning conductor Tang Mumei.

Sharing the initiatives of making the show, Li Jinsheng, president of the China Arts and Entertainment Group, said, "We use 'opera', a Western performing style, to tell a story that happened in [ancient] China. The start of the project itself is bold and innovative." The Beijing-based company co-produced the play with CPAA Theatres, Guangzhou Opera House, Silk Road International League of Theatres and China National Arts Fund.

The biggest challenge facing the international players is apparently singing in Chinese.

"While singing in Chinese, you actually have to change your techniques," said tenor and leading actor Peter Lodahl, who only started to learn Chinese while preparing the show. He illustrated the difficulties with examples of Chinese phonetic symbols that don't exist in Italian, such as yu and ri. "I have to learn the phonetics, the sentences and then work closely on the details."

Produced by Guangzhou Opera House, Marco Polo took three years to finish, with investment of nearly 10 million yuan ($157,300), according to its organizers. The play was a big success when it was debuted on May 4 in Guangzhou, capital of South China's Guangdong province. Its box office totaled 1.5 million yuan ($240,000).

If you go:

7:30 pm, May 16, 18-19. Tiaoqiao Performing Arts Center, No 9 Building, Tianqiao South Street, Xicheng district (opposite Beijing Museum of Natural History). 400-635-3355. 

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