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Rebellion in the Opera World

For the Shanghai Opera House, it's no longer mission impossible when opera meets pop music. The seemingly incompatible mixture is a new trend designed to attract another generation of devotees, writes Susan Zheng.

``Men at birth are naturally good,'' a teenage boy and two girls sing like Chinese versions of Snoop Doggy Dog and Queen Latifah. The lines are from the familiar ``San Zi Jing,'' or ``Three Character Classic'' -- a Confucian blueprint for children that resembles poetry. Their tempo quickens as they rotate the words in turns, their voices finally rising in unison into a long, loud shout.

It's not a poetry recital, but a scene from the Shanghai Opera House's rehearsal room for the upcoming opera play ``The Bet.'' Rap music in opera? Indeed. Call it weird, strange or crazy, just remember it's not the only ``impossible element'' in this avant-garde opera. Ancient Chinese musical instruments such as the ``guzheng'' (Chinese zither), ``pipa'' (lute) and ``xiao'' (vertical bamboo flute) have featured solos in the interlude. The music is enhanced by the sound of rubbing a goblet brim;

tenors and sopranos dance hip-hop; and vocalists use traditional Chinese opera singing techniques to perform the atonal composition. ``This opera doesn't work on beautiful and melodic tunes,'' says Wen Deqing, a 45-year-old Switzerland-based musician who wrote the script and composed the music.

``I emphasize the rhythm and energy of the music and want to establish a tense feeling.'' Though it is not new for opera to be influenced by modern music, it is rare for opera houses -- even in Europe where opera originates -- to perform pioneering operas, let alone those in China. Audiences here are still marginal compared with that of traditional opera-loving countries. Wen's work was declined by a Beijing opera house before it came to Shanghai. It was considered too risky.

Yet, the directors of the local opera house accepted the play readily for its Operetta Project, launched earlier this year, which aims to attract crowds from all demographics. ``We would like to try different kinds of small and middle-scale plays to expand the number of operagoers,'' says Lin Hongming, deputy president of the opera house.

``And we will give room to artists' creations.'' Last year, the Shanghai Opera House only staged nine performances -- three full-length opera plays, ``La Boheme,'' ``Madame Butterfly'' and ``Sister Jiang,'' out of 346 performances in conjunction with soloists, choirs and orchestras. With more than 8.5 million yuan (US$1 million) in box office receipts in 2002 -- a record for all performing groups in the city -- heads of the opera house still feel they can improve.

``In Moscow, an opera house has a repertory of 20 plays a year and they perform operas on a regular basis,'' says Zhang Guoyong, president and artistic director of the opera house, who once studied in Moscow. ``By contrast, we still have a long way to go before we match the image of a metropolitan opera house.''

To attract more people to the high art, three novel plays would be brought to the audience from August to early next year as part of the Operetta Project. Prior to ``The Bet,'' which opens in mid-September, the opera house performed a new-concept version of Mozart's ``Cosi Fan Tutte'' (``They're All Like That'') last month.

The marriage of opera and Chinese pop music received mixed reviews. Critics were impressed with the boldness of the two directors and playwrights -- baritone Yue Caifu and Xue Weijun, a teacher from Shanghai Theater Academy. ``I admire their courage and appreciate their effort to popularize opera in this way,'' says Zhang Mingquan, a former opera singer and now a TV host.

``But I really don't think this is opera anymore. It uses classic arias from other operas, which misleads the audience.'' ``This play was never meant to attract opera buffs, but those who never listen to opera,'' defends Lin. ``We want to bring opera closer to ordinary theatergoers.'' It is working, albeit slowly. ``Cosi'' is the first opera that Zhang Xiufeng, a 25-year-old math teacher, watched.

She says she likes it, though she admits there is something unsophisticated about the pseudo opera. ``The pop songs are oldies from the 1980s and 1990s, too yesterday to strike a chord with young people nowadays,'' says Zhang. ``But it's kind of funny and attention-catching, making it easy for laymen like me to appreciate opera. I think I will watch more operas in the future.'' Unlike ``Cosi,''

``The Bet'' aims to attract crowds interested in modern music. In addition to the two plays, the opera house will stage ``Eighteen Springs,'' adapted from a novel by Chinese writer Eileen Chang, early next year. Lin says ``Eighteen Spring'' is targeted at nostalgic yuppies, believed to be a numerous horde in the city.

Along with the project, the opera house established an opera club named ``Friends of Opera'' and each viewer who has watched any opera can apply for membership. Thus far, more than 400 people who watched ``Cosi'' joined the club, enjoying a 30-percent discount for other operas.

Modern touches aside, the local opera house will continue to stage one or two classical works every year. This October, they will perform ``La Traviata'' during the Shanghai International Arts Festival.

About `The Bet' Based on a novelette by Chinese writer Gao Xiaoshen, the story revolves around a beggar who goes from rags to riches by winning a bet with a wealthy lord -- the beggar succeeds by surviving outdoor freezing weather conditions for one night in northern China. Two years later, the lord sets a second bet with the same scenario. The now wealthy beggar, encouraged by his greedy wife, accepts the challenge, but finally died of the coldness.

The inspiration of ``The Bet'' comes from composer Wen Deqing's own experience. ``This allegory says that men are easy to change,'' says Wen, who studied composition in China, Switzerland and France. ``Two years ago, I went back to Beijing and lived in the dorm of the Central Conservatory of Music.

I couldn't bear the coldness there, but in my school days, it was never a problem. Suddenly I remembered Gao's story and began to write the opera.'' While the opera features vocalists and conductor Zhang Guoyong from the local opera house, it is an international collaboration. In addition to Wen's music, French director Herve Loichemol adds his dimension to the Chinese story.

``It's a cruel bet but I want to assert the role of the lord's wife, a kind lady who always wants to stop the bet,'' says Loichemol. ``I want to show the contrast between the atrocity of the bet and the humanity of the woman.''

Ensemble Contrechamps, a chamber music orchestra from Switzerland, works with traditional Chinese instrumentalists from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music for the accompaniment. Roland Deville, a French set designer, fashions a simple and terse set to the traditional residences of North China.

The opera will premiere at Festival Amadeus in Geneva tomorrow and perform at the Shanghai Grand Theater 10 days later. `The Bet' Time: 7:15 pm, September 14-15 Address: 300 People's Ave. Tickets: 100-280 yuan Tel: 6248-5842, 6248-8017


eastday.com September 3, 2003


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