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A country at the opera

2013-10-18 15:36:15

(China Daily) By Raymond Zhou


Wagner's music did not start seriously trickling into the Chinese mainland until the 1990s. The first complete opera by Wagner to find its way onto a Chinese stage was The Flying Dutchman, which was presented in Shanghai Grand Theater in 1999. Conductor Tang Muhai said he chose this opera because it has traces of Italian operas, which would make it more accessible to the Chinese audience.

Tang, who studied music in Munich and worked in Berlin, had a dream of staging all four operas of the Ring Cycle in China. But instead of fulfilling this impossible mission, he had to make do with more manageable projects of playing overtures and segments from Wagner's operas.

Where Tang failed, Yu Long, artistic director of the Beijing Music Festival, made it happen. In 2005, he brought Der Ring des Nibelungen to Beijing's Poly Theater. It was a four-night affair, produced by the Nuremberg State Theater with 240 performers and 12 containers of sets, props and costumes. "It was a milestone in China's music history," said Ke Hui, vice-president of the China branch of Richard Wagner Verband International, a fan club of Wagner lovers.

BMF followed up this coup with Tannhauser in 2008, also a German import, and this year, Parsifal. Beijing also saw a concert version of Tristan und Isolde in 2007.

In 2010, Shanghai Grand Theater staged two full cycles of the Ring, this time a production of the Cologne Opera under the baton of Markus Stenz. It was made possible by Chinese impresario Wu Jiatong who had been working in cross-cultural exchange, but mostly endeavors of a much smaller scale. The performances were broadcast live on local TV, but it was doubtful many were converted into Wagnerites. For most performances, including the 2005 Ring in Beijing, the audience would start thinning by half time.

Ke Hui reveals that China's Wagner Society has some 1,000 members. Sure, not every devotee to Wagner would register with his club, but he estimates that diehard fans in China are in the low thousands. The funny thing is, most of these people are not professional musicians, but white-collar workers who happen to be attracted to his music. They tend to be more knowledgeable than academics and would often help out theaters with promotional materials, libretto translation, etc. "Pros are usually intimidated by Wagner," he notes.

One pro who dares to pick up the gauntlet is soprano Wang Wei, who has in recent years taken on Elisabeth in Tannhauser and Brunnhilde in Die Walkure. Ke says Wang is still far behind the international standard of excellence for a Wagnerian, but she is turning a lot of heads-and ears. Asian singers often excel in Puccini and Mozart, but it is not easy to pull off the task of singing a major Wagner role.

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