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English-version Chinese classic bids to enthrall Chinese audience

Updated: Sep 12,2017 10:37 AM

The English-version opera of the Chinese classic “A Dream of Red Mansions” has come to China, after wowing the Western audiences last September in San Francisco.

It was no doubt a daunting attempt by the San Francisco Opera. The production is now under close scrutiny of Chinese audience who hold the original novel dear to their hearts. Although watching the opera in English may prove to be a challenge for some.

In its first leg, the opera was staged at Poly Theater in Beijing on September 8-9 before embarking on a tour to the capitals of central Hunan and Hubei provinces.

The Chinese literary classic “A Dream of Red Mansions” has been adapted into TV series, movies, stage plays and regional operas. But never has it been adapted into a Western opera sung in English.

Originally produced for the audience in the US, the opera avoids sketching an all-inclusive story to represent the novel, which has total of 120 chapters.

It chooses instead to focus on the ill-fated love of the main characters Bao Yu and Dai Yu, against the backdrop of the fall of a prominent family during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

“Chinese story, or Western story... We’re all humans. So we have something in common. We all want to be loved, all want to love. So from that point of view, there’s no difference. It’s just a story that happens in China, or in ancient China,” said Bright Shen, composer and librettist of the opera.

The four hundred characters depicted in the novel have been pared down to just seven, which might come as a shock to Red Chamber fans, but director Stan Lai says the opera still retains the essence of the novel.

“While making it simple we hope to retain the sophistication of A Dream of Red Mansions, particularly... the facets of the aristocratic life of China’s Qing Dynasty through Tim Yip’s very beautiful costumes and scenery and staging that put a lot of details. I think the audience would be able to grasp that,” said Stan Lai.

“Plus, all of the themes, all of the very, very Chinese themes that come from the philosophical themes... Confucionism, Taoism, Buddhism. We have kept all these things,” he added.

The male lead role Bao Yu is played by Shi Yijie, a winner of several international vocal competitions.

Despite lending his voice to the works of legendary Italian composers such as Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini previously, Shi still found this role extremely challenging.

“A Dream of Red Mansions’ is such a classic. The novel has such a special place in the hearts of us Chinese. As an opera singer who toured foreign countries and presented characters of Western opera classics, I find this role very difficult. I’ve poured in a lot of time and effort into the role,” said Shi.

A graduate from the International Opera School of the Royal College of Music of the UK, and the winner of a slew of international vocal competitions, Wu He plays the brilliant but sickly young heroine, Dai Yu, in this China tour.

“I fell in love with that role because all the arias and all the vocal range is very suitable for my voice. I really loved that role. Then I decided to take an audition in Beijing to sing the role of Dai Yu. And now I’m here,” Wu said.

Even though the materials used in designing the costumes and settings are not from China, Tim Yip, the designer of the opera, asserted that it has not reduced the classical and elegant elements which have been presented to the audience in a special Oriental style.

Daniel Knapp, production director said the designing has stunned everyone involved in the production. “Everything is translucent, everything is transparent and everything glows,” Knapp said. “It is the sheer cut and the brilliance of Tim’s design that make the production so stellar and so transformable.”

Terry Branstad, US ambassador to China, watched the inaugural show of the opera in China, and said that he enjoyed it very much. He also expressed hope that there would be more cultural exchanges between China and the US.

The San Francisco Opera House has brought together such a “dream team” to create this opera.

From the composer and librettist, to the director and stage designer, all roles are undertaken by celebrated artists who have both a Western and Chinese background.

The opera was a great success in the US when it made its debut last September. And the creative team hopes it will touch the hearts of the Chinese audience as well.