BROADWAY IN BEIJING?
Broadway producers are beginning to take steps to bring popular shows such “Fame”, “42nd Street”, “Annie”, “The Sound of Music” and “Aida” to China. The shows are being developed with a Mandarin script ay Beijing’s Central Academy of Drama. In December 2008, the Beijing Daily newspaper announced that a 32-theater 'Broadway' complex was was going to be constructed in the city's sprawling northwest suburb of Haidian--- home to schools and universities, as well as the prestigious hi-tech industrial park of Zhongguancun. To make way for it a large chunk of ageing tenements was demolished. The flagship theater of the complex will have a capacity of 2,000. The another 31 venues are of various shapes, styles and sizes and are capable of holding between 300 and 500 people.[Source: David Stanway, The Guardian, December 24, 2008]
“The complex will become “a Chinese Broadway base for composers, writers, performers and actors in training,” said a spokesman for the developer. Beijing Shibo said it is planning to stage as many as 100 musicals at the new facilities, once construction is completed.”
“Beijing, which is traditionally seen as China's cultural center, had a vast amount of small theaters buried in a maze of alleys and lanes. But town planners, zealously trying to turn the capital into a modern, efficient and cosmopolitan city, have consigned most of them to history. Developers of the new complex will be hoping the local appetite for foreign musicals continues to thrive.”
“In Beijing's theatrical heyday, venues were spread throughout the suburbs and were designed to bring enjoyment to the masses in a convenient way. “In those days, residents living near the theater either had to only walk a small distance or could even stay in their own street to watch a show. The theaters were built right next to their home,” the People's Daily wrote.”
Chinese Play on Broadway
The Global Times reported: “The “Final Struggle”, a play shedding light on major problems in Chinese society including corruption and abuse of power, is to be performed on Broadway in November 2012, becoming the first Chinese play to hit the US commercial theatrical market. Directed by Wu Xiaojiang, the work is a joint production of the National Theater of China (NTC) and Town Square Productions (TSP), a New York City-based theatrical management and creative development enterprise with interests in Broadway, Off-Broadway and touring productions. [Source: Jiang Yuxia, Global Times, November 25, 2010]
“On the eve of Spring Festival, a family gathers together to celebrate. While the patriarch He Guangming, a devoted communist, indulges in recalling his past when he witnessed the growth and development of New China, his three sons share their philosophies and means of survival in China's fast-changing society. Youngest son, He Xiaoming, exposes his dilemma of possibly escaping to the US due to illegally raising funds for his company or staying with the family.” “The play has won critical acclaim in China for its blunt exposure of social problems, incisive and humorous lines and excellent acting, since its debut in November, 2009. "It is real, reflecting the diverse values and moral conflicts in Chinese society," producer Liu Tiegang told the Global Times. "At the same time there are similar problems in the US as well. People there are also thinking and reflecting on the same questions."
One of the major elements that still needs to be resolved, is how to transfer the comedy. "The translation of the scripts is not so well done at the moment and some of the humor can only be understood by Chinese people," Liu said.
The Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang (of “M. Butterfly” fame), and director Leigh Silverman have gone to China “to research a new production.” Hwang and Silverman collaborated on “Yellow Face,” which won a couple of OBIE awards and was a finalist for the Pulitzer. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker website July 29, 2010]
Mandarin Mamma Mia!
In September 2011, Patti Waldmeir of Slate.com wrote: Abba’s---Mamma Mia! has arrived in China---the first time that a Broadway-quality western musical has been performed in the language of the world's most populous nation. Classics such as "Money, Money, Money" are sung entirely in Chinese (apart from the word "money", which apparently needs no translation).” [Source: Patti Waldmeir , Slate.com, September 17, 2011]
A Chinese cast sings songs in Chinese in a show staged by a Chinese production company that is the commercial arm of the Ministry of Culture. It is a peculiar---and in some ways uncomfortable---fusion of east and west, but one that has been greeted rapturously by audiences in Beijing and Shanghai. Next month the production moves to Guangzhou, before returning to Shanghai on Christmas Eve.
Beijing hopes that the show---which is being staged under licence from original producers Littlestar, and is under their artistic control---will spark the creation of an indigenous musical theatre industry in China. Chinese producers United Asia Live Entertainment Co (UALE) say that box-office revenues so far stand at RMB26m (£2.58m, $4.06m), while it cost RMB70m to produce.
This production takes just a baby step across the divide. Apart from the words, everything about it is western: the costumes, the body language, the gestures. The show's three middle-aged divas---Donna, Tanya and Rosie---wear neon Lycra and bellbottoms; the younger Chinese cast members bump bottoms in greeting (in a way that would never pass muster offstage). Plug your ears and this could be Broadway.
The story, too, could hardly be more western. The heroine, Donna (played by Meryl Streep in the movie), has had sex with three men and does not know which one fathered her daughter. When her daughter gets married and invites all three potential fathers to the wedding the result is a classically western comedy of errors. The backdrop of the story is the sexual revolution of the 1960s, in which Donna enthusiastically participated. Her Chinese contemporaries were going through a spot of upheaval then too---but it did not involve quite as much free love, and certainly a lot less laughter.
It may seem odd to choose such a foreign story to promote the localisation of stage musicals in China, but Tian Yuan, president of UALE, thinks it is an obvious choice: "In a relatively short period, Mamma Mia! has become the world's number one hit musical with the largest audiences and the most language versions around the globe," she says. In that respect, it is like a Fendi handbag: a famous name, in the land where brand is king.
Doing Broadway Shows in Chinese
In September 2011, Patti Waldmeir of Slate.com wrote: “English productions of Cats, Les Misérables and other global hit musicals have done short mainland tours in recent years. But to succeed in China, musicals must make money---and to make money, they must run for years, says Lightbody. "How do you get a show to run for years in the local market?" he asks. "You do it in the local language." [Source: Patti Waldmeir , Slate.com, September 17, 2011]
That may sound obvious, but many Shanghai theatregoers do not agree. On a sultry evening in August, Zhang Yuwei, who works in sales in Shanghai, donned a chiffon shirt and hotpants to attend one of the first performances of the show in Mandarin. But she wishes it had been in English. "Even though Chinese is my mother tongue, I would rather see it in English," she commented during the interval. "I know it's been performed all over the world and it is sort of 'globalised', but there is still a cultural gap," she said, adding, "I have the sense that there is something missing."
Zhang speaks for many Chinese when she questions the logic of performing it in the vernacular. Mandarin is a tonal language, where changes in pitch can deliver radically different meanings: "English can be sung fast and understood, but Chinese cannot," says Zhang.
Many Shanghainese prefer foreign things on principle---whether handbags or stage shows. Shanghai is the most western of China's cities, and has a long history of familiarity with---not to mention occupation by---westerners. And throughout the mainland, middle-class consumers often want nothing to do with Brand China. Many assume the Chinese version of everything will be the cheap one. In fact, domestic brands have often found it hard to compete with the conventional wisdom that, in the words of a Chinese proverb, "foreign monks give better sermons". Overseas goods are always assumed to have the edge on quality.
Surprisingly, even those whose English is poor seem to agree. The English language newspaper China Daily recently posed the question, "What's the point of translating Broadway hits into Chinese?" It asked a dozen young Shanghainese women which version they would prefer to see and they all chose the English one. What if they could not speak English? "Still English," they said.
Musical Theater in Southern China Factory City
Nick Frisch of Danwei.org wrote in the Wall Street Journal, "You're going to Dongguan? For musical theater?" Legitimate musical theater, no less. I had seen posters for Love U, Teresa!---in the corridors of Hong Kong's metro. It looked like dreck. But sure, why not? Who doesn't miss squat toilets and slogan-toting red banners? Not to mention being literally the only non-Chinese in the audience. It’s a familiar phenomenon, I thought as they stamped my passport at the Lowu border post: flush with cash but terrified that they lack “culture,” government officials overspend on dubious prestige projects. [Source:Nick Frisch, Danwei.org, December 24, 2010]
Tangxia---a Dongguan subdivision rumored to specialize in blue jeans and Nokia phones---did not disappoint. A “Cultural Plaza” was circled by extravagant government buildings, a sparkling hi-tech library, and the blandly angular Tangxia Performing Arts Center. Signs of normal human habitation---a pulled-noodle joint, say, or karaoke brothel---were a full half-hour walk away along massive avenues. I was ushered into a VIP room with chairs arrayed in a U-shape (why do they always look like that for reporters’ chance to interview Li Dun, the producer.
In the hall, one banner hung on the balcony: “Carry out creative and superior performance activities, strengthen grassroots Party-building, firm up the foundations of the Party’s rule, promote ever-faster, ever-better economic and social development of Tangxia! Another, slightly more prosaic propaganda effort overhung the stage: “[Dong]guan-produced musical “Love U Teresa” Tangxia Previews.” Scattered scenes were rehearsed and tightened---cooperation seemed cordial between the Broadway types and local talent, but working styles were clearly different. “Can you translate!” Tell him to move forward. Into the light! Into the light! Around the sofa!”
Dozing off in the seats, I was roused by a boom as a Shanghai shikumen home crumpled onstage. Production values were clearly high---besides the crumpling building, I saw sections of an airplane fuselage, a boat-shaped bandstand on wheels, a levitating heavenly throne, and some swirly number they called the “purgatory set.” The whole thing looked hit or miss. At dinner break, the Western talent eschewed canteen food to decamp for steaks and coffees. The magician improvised a rather clever “Moonlight Sonata Represents My Heart” mashup on the coffeehouse piano. And then, it was showtime.
Initial signs were not promising. A kitschy, dry ice-and-angel-infested depiction of Heaven---Teng died in 1995---transitions to a story set in Shanghai. Then, the surprises mounted. Clever reworkings of classic songs. Surprisingly realistic details---the Taiwanese bar owner in Shanghai, a familiar breed for anyone who’s visited a saloon or a mango ice shop in that city. The hedonistic materialism, generational and migrational angst, and most surprising of all, forced demolition. A depiction of the widespread practice of painting “ (chai - "demolish") on buildings and evicting residents with paltry compensation was an unlikely sight wedged between lush song-and-dance numbers. By the end I decided, kitschy or not, that I had enjoyed myself. By mainland standards, this was positively ambitious. For a project of this price-tag and prominence, such an unharmonious image was almost unimaginable.”
Westerners Sing in Mandarin
The I Sing Beijing program brings Western performers to China to learn to sing works in Mandarin. One participant, Thomas Glenn, a tenor from San Francisco who has performed at the Met, told the Los Angeles Times,"To us foreigners, bel canto opera is pure and beautiful to our ears while Peking Opera sounds shrill and tense..."But now that I'm learning it I'm realizing it's really jazzy and improvisational, which is pretty cool." [Source: Dan Levin, Los Angeles Times, August 14, 2011]
This musical exchange is the brainchild of bass Tian Haojiang, an opera star who emigrated from China to the U.S. more than 20 years ago. For Tian, who has spent decades singing in Italian, German and French, I Sing Beijing offers the chance to teach Westerners about Chinese culture while introducing them to Mandarin as a lyric language."Throughout my 25 years onstage at the Met and opera houses across Europe, I've felt that almost all of my colleagues and audiences know nothing about Chinese music and history," said Tian as he paused from coaching a slight man with a giant voice. "It's my dream to train young Western professionals to sing Chinese contemporary opera and help it join the mainstream opera world."
Just as young Americans are flocking to China for corporate job opportunities, opera singers are also looking to the Middle Kingdom. "You go home to America and it's a downer," said Brian Wahlstrom, 29, a blond former punk-rocker from San Diego who sings baritone. "Endowments are being cut everywhere, but here in China there is all this growth, so learning Mandarin makes sense." Kurt Sanchez Kanazawa, 21, a Los Angeles native of Japanese and Filipino descent, has found that learning Mandarin has made him a better singer. He is also discovering that his latest role as a global citizen can sometimes get lost in translation. "People on the street here are really supportive of me learning their language," he said. "But when I tell them I'm from the United States, they say, 'Where are you really from?'"
Growth of Western Opera in China
China is pouring money into new opera venues, like the recently opened, $202-million Guangzhou Center for the Performing Arts designed by Zaha Hadid, and dedicating funds for opera education and productions. Propelled by millions of classical musicians and their powerful voices, China is amid an opera renaissance that began after the Cultural Revolution, when many opera composers were persecuted and all music had to conform to Mao's political agenda. [Source: Dan Levin, Los Angeles Times, August 14, 2011]
In 2010, Peking University inaugurated its Academy of Opera, the first institution in China dedicated to the training and research of opera performance, stage design and production. Graduates may well find work at the National Center for the Performing Arts, China's equivalent of the Met, where "Turandot" just concluded and a number of Western operas, including a joint production of "Rigoletto," with the Teatro Regio di Parma, and "La Bohème," will take the stage in the next few months. Major Chinese cities such as Shanghai and Shenzhen regularly present classic Western works in addition to traditional Chinese operas.
Bonesetter's Daughter Opera
“The Bonesetter’s Daughter”, an opera based on Amy Tan’s best-selling 2001 novel with music by composer Stewart Wallace and a libretto written by Tan, was staged by the San Francisco Opera and Chorus with an eclectic mix of talent, including acrobats, dancers and traditional opera performers from China and a strong cast of singers and musicians from China, including performers from the China National Beijing Opera Company; percussionist Li Zhonghua; rock musician Wu Tong, who plays the double-reed suona and sings several roles; and Qian Yi, a Kunju opera performer who was a star in an acclaimed production of “The Peony Pavilion”. [Source: Sheila Melvin, New York Times, August 28, 2008]
Sheila Melvin wrote in New York Times: “Like the book on which it is based, the opera shifts from modern-day San Francisco to China and Hong Kong in the 1930s and “40s, and from this world to the next, as it tells the story of three generations of women: Precious Auntie, who lived and died in old China; her daughter, LuLing, a Chinese immigrant facing life’s twilight in San Francisco; and Ruth, LuLing’s American-born daughter, with whom she has long had a challenging relationship. The women are descendants of a Chinese bonesetter who healed patients with a secret ingredient that has bound the family together for a thousand years: dragon bones.”
“In The Bonesetter’s Daughter dragon bones symbolize the genetic links and secret histories that bind the three women, even offering a cure of a sorts when the secrets involving the bones are revealed. The idea to turn this multilayered novel into an opera did not come from its author.”
Chinese 'Take' on "Nixon in China"
“Nixon in China”, an opera by John Adams, was first performed by the Brooklyn Academy of Music and premiered in Houston in 1987. It is censored in China. Those who have seen it are unimpressed. "I tried to watch the video, but couldn't finish it," Zhou Long, whose opera "Madame White Snake" premiered last year in Boston and Beijing told the Wall Street Journal. "My impression is that 'Nixon in China' is a story in China for an American audience." [Source: Nick Frisch, Wall Street Journal, February 25, 2011] "I can't recall that any of us ever discussed the opera," says Chou Wen-chung, a retired Columbia University professor widely considered the dean of Chinese composers. Younger Chinese musicians are, if anything, even less aware. "There is an opera?" asks a bewildered Zhang Sixu, a sixth-year musicology student at Beijing's Central Conservatory of Music visiting Columbia. "I'm . . . I'm not sure many Chinese are aware of this."
On the opera violinist Li Jue, the widow of Mao Zedong's top conductor Li Delun, told the Wall Street Journal, "When Delun and I joined the Communists in Yan'an, we never imagined that Mao would meet a U.S. president. When Mao met Nixon, we never imagined it would become an opera."
The fact that his work isn't on the Chinese radar screen doesn't bother the composer at all. "This is an American opera, about American mythology" Adams said in an interview at the Juilliard School, across from the Met. "The worst thing I could do would be to parody Chinese music. It makes 'Turandot' unbearable," Mr. Adams insists. "I wanted to maintain an integrity of the musical palate. I knew that they played music for Nixon on his visit, but had no interest in that at all."
Poet Alice Goodman, the librettist, is likewise quite clear: "It requires a certain suspension of disbelief. Mao is not only singing, but he's singing in English, using political and poetic allusions which would mean more to an American," she says by phone from Cambridge University. "That's one reason we didn't call it 'Mao Meets Nixon.' It's 'Nixon in China,'" concurs Peter Sellars, director and longtime Adams collaborator, in a phone interview from Chicago. "It's about Americans encountering China, there is no presumption to state these things for a Chinese person."
Some Chinese do enjoy the opera once they encounter it. "I can't believe I've never seen this," enthuses Zhang Kemin after the curtain falls at Met premier. Mr. Zhang, raised in Toronto and a resident of Beijing, is the grandson of Mrs. Li and Li Delun, who served as music director for many of Jiang Qing's model operas and ballets---including "The Red Detachment of Women," so artfully reimagined in Act II.
Perhaps memories of those works are the real reason Chinese are so reluctant to accept putting recent events on the stage. Mr. Zhang explains that his grandfather saw the propaganda operas as a "last resort" to save the symphony orchestra from the Cultural Revolution. But once that nightmare was over, many Chinese artists were determined to prevent the arts from becoming the tool of politics again. To see Americans blithely mixing them together is almost as strange as Mao singing in English.
Sun Yat-sen Opera Cancelled
In August 2011, authorities canceled “Dr. Sun Yat-sen,” a sumptuous new opera about that Chinese revolutionary that was weeks away from opening at the National Center for Performing Arts. Officials described the action as a “postponement,” but they told its producers that the opera was politically problematic. [Source: Nick Frisch, New York Times, October 11, 2011] Nick Frisch wrote in the New York Times, “The composer, cast and crew had already begun rehearsals in the egglike National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing when word came down from Communist Party officials in late August: the Sept. 30 world premiere of Huang Ruo's"Dr. Sun Yat-sen," a new opera depicting that revolutionary’s turbulent love life, would be postponed indefinitely .
The center cited "logistical reasons" for the postponement. Opera Hong Kong, which commissioned the work, was privately given a different explanation. "They were told the opera was not politically serious enough," a member of the production team told the New York Times. The source confirmed that Chen Ping, who serves jointly as president and party committee secretary of the center, made the final decision. "I'd been working on this for four years," said the 34-year-old Mr. Huang, whose opera, his first, had been thrown into disarray by the decision. "It was a shock. They had approved the libretto months in advance." Huang is a New York-based, Chinese-born graduate of the Oberlin College Conservatory and the Juilliard School.
A previously scheduled performance in Hong Kong constituted the premiere. In Beijing, an alternative opera,"Chinese Orphan," from the center's previous season, was prepared to be revived in place of "Dr. Sun Yat-sen." Ticket sales for "Dr. Sun" were quietly halted, and mentions of it---including posters and videos in the lobby---disappeared. With hotels and rehearsal space already booked, cast members continued to rehearse in Beijing.
"People are afraid of speaking out," said a participant at one of those rehearsals. "If we are seen as troublemakers, our careers in mainland China could be ruined." Another source close to the production said that "several singers used the pretext of 'unsingable' to try to quit," eager to disassociate themselves from a production that had begun to exhibit signs of political fallout that were unlikely to have stemmed from simple logistical difficulties.
The Swiss watchmaker Carl F. Bucherer, listed as “Title Sponsor, Opening Night” for the Hong Kong performances, disappeared from the roster of supporters in Opera Hong Kong’s publicity materials. "We have withdrawn sponsorship," a spokeswoman for Bucherer confirmed, declining to specify whether the decision was related to Bucherer's ownership of a retail outlet in Beijing, its largest store in Asia. Bucherer has remained a sponsor of "1911," Jackie Chan’s revolutionary film epic, which hews to the orthodox depiction of Sun favored by films tailored for the mainland market: a heroic, mythic figure unlikely to dwell melodically on divorce with his soon-to-be ex-wife.
Contemplating Why the Sun Yat-sen Opera was Cancelled
It is unclear which aspect of the opera met with official disapproval. A review of the score and the libretto suggests that “Dr. Sun Yat-sen” may have fallen victim to fast-changing boundaries in China's volatile political climate. Controls generally tighten around important anniversaries, and the opera's premiere was scheduled near two: Oct. 1, the 62nd anniversary of the People’s Republic, and last Monday, the centenary of Sun’s Nationalist revolution.
The suspension of a prominent magazine editor in south China, Zhao Lingmin, over printed criticism of Sun's "treasonous" dealings with Japan was reported widely in China days before the premiere was canceled. The line in the libretto "Sun Yat-sen, you traitor!" comes amid a romantic disagreement but may nonetheless have gained sudden and unwelcome resonance.
The music, awash in rich colors drawn from widely spaced open-fifth chords and syncopated non-Western rhythms, does not fit the bright, brass-heavy triumphalism or sweeping romanticism favored in the classic propaganda plays that inform official tastes. Hearing an onstage choir sing "Strive for revolution to the very end!" over ambiguous floating fifths instead of triumphant trumpets may have given officials second thoughts.
The controversy comes amid deepening ties between Western cultural institutions and their Chinese counterparts. A growing number of strategic agreements in the arts sector are driven by Westerners? financial problems and the cash-rich China’s desire to absorb and benefit from global talent.
The government is developing classical music as a major source of "soft power," an official policy goal under the 12th Five-Year Plan. The arts center's agreement to present "Dr. Sun Yat-sen" was, until its cancellation, consistent with such bridge-building endeavors and not an obvious candidate for controversy.
Zen Shalon and Other Outdoor Extravaganzas
Various places in China have begun staging outdoor performances that combine theater and tourism spectacle. The grandest of these has been “Zen Shaolin”, a grand production with a cast of 500 and a Tan Dun score, performed in a $15 million theater set before a scenic 4,921-foot mountains with temples, martial arts schools and a wooden pagoda in a valley in Henan Province.
”Zen Shaolin” features monks from Shaolin Temple doing martial arts routines worked out by the internationally-known dancer and choreographer Huang Dou Dou. The show opened in May 2007, and welcomes more than 300,000 visitors by the time of the Beijing Olympics in 2008. The show has helped the local economy by providing jobs and bringing tourism to a region that has been otherwise left out the Chinese economic miracle.
David Barboza wrote in the New York Times, “During the 70-minute show, villagers skip and dance, and martial-arts practitioners perform in a kind of dreamlike state. Children execute flips; monks meditate un the foreground; women wash clothes in a brook; and bowmen pluck on ancient Chinese string instruments.”
The film director Zhang Yimou is one of the pioneers of the art form. He produced “The Impression of Liu Sanjie”, an outdoor spectacle staged in Guangxi Province, in south-west China, one of the country’s poorest regions. He later went on to produce shows in scenic spots like Hangzhou and Lijiang in Yunnan Province and was selected to do the Opening Ceremonies for the Olympics based in part on what he achieved in these shows.
Currently there are several outdoor gala shows in China. Zhang Yimou's Impression series has five installments including Dahongpao, West Lake and Lijiang and Chen Kaige is preparing to open Xi Yi in Dali next year. Wang Chaoge, director of Impression Lijiang was quoted by the Yangtze Evening News as saying that the show makes 73 million yuan ($10 million) a year.
Media analyst Lu Rui said that due to the inclusion of A-list directors, outdoor galas stand to make significant profit. More and more tourism attractions are approaching famous directors for their cooperation,” he said]
Feng Xiaogang Extravaganza
The beautiful coastal area of Beibuwan, Guangxi, selected to stage Feng Xiaogang’s mega-outdoor gala. Following in the footsteps of Zhang Yimou's Impression series, Feng's “Menghuan Beibuwan” (Dreamy Beibuwan), dubbed as a historical adventure, was and is scheduled to open in October 2010. It is collaborative effort between Feng and the local government of Fangchenggang, the town at the site, with the sea as the stage. [Source: Leng Mo, Global Times, May 17, 2010]
Zang explained that Menghua Beibuwan will be set among the outdoor landscape of Beibuwan and will recreate the ancient Maritime Silk Road and the voyage of navigator Zheng He to the Western Ocean (now called the Indian Ocean). “We will build up the stage in the sea of Beibuwan, it will be the world's first stage built in the sea permanently, with the natural landscape as the scenery, it creates a brand new genre in drama,” Zang said]
“Beibuwan is one of the starting points of the ancient Maritime Silk Road, there is rich history to tell,” Luo Zhixian, vice mayor of Fangchenggang told the Global Times. “It also has beautiful natural landscape and is one of the few coastal areas that hasn't been developed into a commercial region.”
The project is being made with investments from Hong Kong Global Holdings and production team from the Comrades-in-Arms Cultural Troupe of the Beijing Military Command, People's Liberation Army. Zang, “There are technical challenges ahead, like how to make the stage strong enough for a storm, but we will solve them,” he said.
Image Sources: Asia Obscura
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated March 2012