Lao She is one of the most famous writers in China and died 38 years ago. His 105th birthday was celebrated on Feb 3, 2004. The opera, Taiping Lake's Memory -- the Death of Lao She, will be performed at the Amsterdam Royal Theater Carre, in the Netherlands on March 6 and 7. The opera troupe will stage up to eight performances each year around Europe in the next three years. They will next perform in China in 2005, for the Beijing international music festival held in October.
Shu Yi, the son of Lao She and the curator of the National Museum of Modern Chinese Literature, said few people know that Lao She loved opera, and even wrote three operas before his death. But because they drew little attention domestically, most of them were lost. It's significant to rearrange the work entitled The Death of Lao She as an opera.
Foreigners sing opera in Chinese
Xu Shuya, the composer of the opera, said it has been taken up and put down several times and now will finally come into being. He said that although he lived abroad for many years, he admired Lao She all the time, especially his lofty, unswerving spirit and dedication.
He tried to write an opera about Lao She himself five years ago. He finished a first draft called The Death of Lao She in 1997, but was not very satisfied. He invited Liu Xinwu, a famous Chinese writer, to co-create the second draft of The Death of Lao She in 2001. The second draft was published in Hong Kong and prepared for performance in the Paris Autumn Art Festival. It was also shelved because of a shortage of funds.
At the beginning of 2003, Radio Netherlands, Chamber Chorus and Nieuw Ensemble invited Xu Shuya to compose a new opera for them. He sent the Liu Xinwu's draft to them. They said they needed another libretto to consult. He then found the Taiping Lake's Memory -- the Death of Lao She, which was co-created by Fu Guangming and Zeng Li. The later edition drew great interest from Dutch investors who decided to invest 5 million yuan (about US$603,000) immediately.
Xu Shuya said the opera is divided into two scenes and from a reporter's eyes, provides many different points of view on the death of Lao She. The main roles include Xiao Jun (a famous writer), Shu Yi (Lao She's son), a chairman of the "revolution committee" and a female Red Guard. Foreigners perform most roles in the play and all roles are to be sung in Chinese.
"Opera originates from Western art, so Western singers have inherent advantages. We note pinyin (Chinese phonetic symbol) under every character and invited some Chinese overseas students to correct them," Xu Shuya said. It's no use worrying that European audiences won't understand it -- as most of the audiences are cultured, and know Lao She. But there will still be English subtitles in each performance.
According to Xu Shuya, the Western world is very interested in the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976), but they don't understand the truth of this period of Chinese history. This opera doesn't intend to sermonize, criticize or comment: it just reflects on the details of the period from the position of humanity. To give prominence to the Chinese character, Beijing drums and Chinese fiddles are adopted.
History as it actually was
Fu Guangming, a researcher at the National Museum of Modern Chinese Literature and author of Taiping Lake's Memory -- the Death of Lao She, said he's glad that so many people pay attention to that period of history and to the phenomenon of celebrities committing suicide. Besides the written interview record, they even edited the interview's videotape into a special documentary and published it.
Fu Guangming said, "In the process of researching the death of Lao She, I found we can get closer and closer to history, but we can't revive its truths. Lao She disappeared completely and didn't even leave bone ash -- just as if he were swallowed by the crevasses of history. What he left to us were different versions of a guessing game. And what we can confirm is that he had unexpected violence and humiliation and his corpse was then found beside Taiping Lake. This great author left without a single word and no one knows what tormented the old man before his death."
Fu Guangming's study of the death of Lao She began in 1993 and the book Taiping Lake's Memory -- the Death of Lao She was published in 2001. His research still continues. "This year marks the 105th birthday of Lao She. The opera's performance is a special commemoration of Lao She," Fu said.
(China.org.cn by Chen Lin and Daragh Moller, February 10, 2004)