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Chinese-style operas still have a way to go

2011-07-04 09:39     Web Editor: Li Heng

( the 1600s, Italian artists Jacopo Peri and Giulio Caccini jointly created the world's first modern opera "Euridice." Centuries later, China's first modern opera was produced by musician Li Jinhui and debuted on stage in 1921.

For almost 100 years afterward, Chinese composers have made painstaking efforts to write music and study opera theories, trying to forge operas that can be stamped with Chinese characteristics; but, the road has not always been smooth.

There are basically two ways for Chinese operas, said drama theoretician Jiao Juyin: "One is to create operas completely using the Western style, and the other is to invent Chinese-style operas, sinicizing Western music and operas with Chinese elements."

On the way to perfection

Over the last five years, Chinese opera circles have been in full swing creating Chinese-style operas, mainly themed on historical and revolutionary stories, like "The Orphan of Zhao" and "The White-Haired Girl."

According to a survey conducted by Chen Zhiyin, a music critic, more than 20 operas with Chinese characteristics will be put on the stage this year. Though most of these operas are not ideal enough to be called a Chinese-style opera, the quantity is still astonishing.

Written based on the historical play "The Orphan of Zhao" by Zou Jing and composed by musician Lei Lei, the opera for "The Orphan of Zhao" is more or less an ideal Chinese-style opera.

"The Orphan of Zhao" is the second opera jointly created by the two artists after the opera "Xi Shi." Debuting at the National Centre for the Performing Arts on June 20, this opera is seen by professionals as a more prudent one than its predecessor.

Nevertheless, this one also has defects and needs adjustments as it has simple plots, repetitive lyrics, and some clichéd content, like calling back the spirit of the dead. The opera has 6 different scenes and 7 scene shifts, which shows the writer's improper plot arrangement.

Learn from Westerners

"The Orphan of Zhao" is an embodiment of Chinese musicians' trying to explore the definition and value of Chinese-style opera. Subsequent operas can learn from this opera and make themselves better.

There are many Chinese elements that have been portrayed by Western operas, like in "L'Inimico delle Donne" and "Turandot," but learning from operas written by Italian, French, and German musicians may not help to solve the problem of creating China's own opera.

Operas written by Hungarian composer and pianist Bela Bartok, Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, and Spanish composer Isaac Albeniz, which mix local elements with elements of Italian-style, bring some inspirations to Chinese composers.

Obstacles in the way

In the development of Chinese opera, there have been great operas like the 1945 "The White-Haired Girl" by Yan Jinxuan, which was based on legends circulating in the border region of Shanxi and Hebei. This opera described the misery of the local peasantry, particularly of the women during this time.

But in recent years, performance units and institutes prefer staging brand new operas or importing foreign operas for display, which has indirectly pushed great pieces of old work out of sight of the audiences.

The Western opera circles think highly of restoring old pieces and re-staging them. When restoring an old piece, Western conductors often take on the responsibility of a musician who can provide professional and background guidance.

With the help of a professional composer, it will be convenient to bring an old piece back to life to be adopted by a commercial operation. Though in China, most composers lack the ability to provide professional operatic knowledge and musicians are often less competent about old operas.

Many performance units require a large quantity of operas to be brought to the commercial market. In a bid to meet these requirements, composers rush to finish opera plays in a short time, often leading to plain content or bad melodies.

Though there is still a long way to go, there have been inspiring events. Chinese-American composer Zhou Long won a Pulitzer Prize for music with his opera "Madame White Snake" held in April. Though the composer is not a pure China-based musician, the opera contains aspects from China.

Even though the opera is not a Chinese-style one, lessons can still be learned. This is a good way of elaborating on the cooperation between the West and China, and a way to show the international status of Chinese opera.