Staging a classic tale

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The first Chinese production of The Phantom of the Opera will begin its national tour in May. 

The Phantom of the Opera, one of the most successful musicals in the world, will have its first Chinese production this year.

The live-entertainment branch of Shanghai Media Group announced that the production will premiere at the Shanghai Grand Theater on May 3.

The upcoming production in Mandarin will be the 18th language the musical will be performed in.

After 39 performances in Shanghai, the production will embark on an unprecedented national tour, with the first round of 200 shows taking place until the beginning of 2024.

The three Chinese actors, who will play the title character of the musical, are Ayunga, Liu Lingfei and He Liangchen.

Created by British composer Andrew Lloyd Webber β€” based on the book by French author Gaston Leroux β€” the musical The Phantom of the Opera has been performed in more than 65,000 shows in 183 cities around the world and watched by 145 million people.

The box-office revenues of the shows add up to about $6 billion. Since its debut in 1986 in London, it has been the longest-running show on Broadway.

In September, the show announced that it would be closing in February, but the plan was later changed because of the high box-office demand. Its Broadway run has since been extended for another eight weeks until April 16.

The original production of the musical was first presented in China in 2004, when 100 shows were held.

The reception was overwhelming, with the average attendance rate hitting 99 percent.

From 2013 to 2015, the production again toured Shanghai; Guangzhou, Guangdong province; and Beijing and generated record box-office sales. For many people in China, it marked their maiden experience of musical theater.

In 2018, SMG Live and Webber's Really Useful Group jointly announced the Phantom China project, which would include a "grand tour" of the country in 2020, a reality show to identify musical talent in China, as well as production of the musical in Chinese.

Although the plan was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the tour of the original production had to be postponed, SMG Live recently decided to kick off the production of the Chinese version, as it says China's musical industry is more mature.

"We now feel we have the capability and confidence to create a top-notch show in Chinese," says Ma Chencheng, president of SMG Live.

"Over the past two decades, the musical has had three China tours. During that period, SMG Live took three big steps β€” first the introduction of original productions in China; second, the production of Chinese editions of established shows; and now we are making original Chinese productions."

Chinese productions of Broadway musicals such as Cats and Mamma Mia helped to nurture the first generation of professional musical performers, creative and production teams, and more importantly, the booming market cultivated large groups of musical lovers in China, he adds.

In mid-July, the Chinese production of the musical started casting actors and actresses and soon received more than 1,000 applicants.

More than 100 people also applied for the role of translating the script. This reception gave Ma and his colleagues confidence that the Chinese production would be a success.

Serin Kasif, a representative of RUG, says in a video clip that some 200 applicants made it to the final audition because the creative team was simply "blown away by the caliber of talent".

Kristen Blodgette, the musical supervisor of the Chinese production, also praises local talent, noting that it is unusual for so many people to meet the requirements.

"The musical is an extremely challenging score to sing," she says. "Andrew has written the role in a way which utilizes every range and every color of the voice, from a low A flat to a high A flat …to weeping cries and loud exclamations, that are all very challenging on the voice."

Besides excellent vocal techniques, performers will also need a good acting range as the Phantom is a complicated character who is vulnerable, exotic and unique all at the same time.

One of the three actors for the title role is Ayunga, an ethnic Mongolian musician in China, who has starred in major productions such as the Chinese version of Romeo and Juliet and Monte Cristo. Ayunga has in recent years been working as a producer of Chinese musicals, too.

Liu, the second actor for the role, started his musical career with the Chinese production of Cats more than 10 years ago, and has since become a veteran musical actor in the country.

"The Phantom is the dream role of every musical actor," he says. "I am greatly honored and overwhelmed to be given this opportunity."

The third actor, He, the youngest of the three, is an opera singer who graduated from Italy's Nicola Paganini Conservatory of Music in Genoa and trained at the Academia Verdiana's program for promising young opera singers.

Fei Xiang, or Kris Philips, an American Chinese singer and actor, who was the first to introduce the legendary musical to China, shares his experience of working with Webber and singing Webber's works in Chinese in a video message.

Fei joined Webber's concert production The Music of the Night, which starred international singing superstar Sarah Brightman, in 1995.

After touring more than 40 cities in the United States, the concert was held at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing and the Shanghai Grand Theater in 2001. That was the first formal introduction of Western musicals to audiences in China, he says.

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