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Beijing has thing for Puccini opera set in China

Puccini's 'Turandot,' set amid a bloody royal court, was once reviled as insulting. But as economic powerhouse China seeks to create an audience for Western opera, the work has seemed a natural.

July 28, 2009|Barbara Demick

BEIJING — Gli enigmi sono tre, una e la vita!

What does the above mean? ("The riddles are three; life is one!")

Where is it from? (The opera "Turandot.")

Who is the latest musical sensation in China? (A dead Italian once scorned for his Orientalist fantasies about Asian women.)

Back in the 1960s and '70s, when Italian opera was deemed a capitalist indulgence in China, no work was more despised than Giacomo Puccini's "Turandot." Many Chinese thought the opera insulting, with its depiction of a despotic Chinese princess who has her suitors beheaded unless they can answer three riddles.

They're singing a different tune these days.

For the 60th anniversary of China's communist revolution in October, a new production of "Turandot" has been commissioned for the 100,000-seat Bird's Nest stadium built for last summer's Olympic Games. Last year, another production of the work had the distinction of being the first opera performed at Beijing's new National Center for the Performing Arts.

In recent years, there have been at least six Chinese productions of "Turandot." Filmmaker Zhang Yimou, who is staging the anniversary version at the Bird's Nest, also directed a $15-million spectacle in 1998 inside Beijing's Forbidden City. A 2007 version of the opera was set in modern-day Shanghai with the successful suitor, Calaf, solving the riddles by -- how else are riddles solved in the 21st century? -- surfing the Internet.

Other Puccini operas are at the top of the hit parade in China. His "Tosca" opened China's first bona fide opera festival, held at the new performing arts center from mid-April to early July. In fact, four out of nine full-length operas in the festival were Puccini works, which were interspersed with revolutionary classics such as "Daughter of the Communist Party."

Then there was the all-Chinese production of "La Boheme" -- in which the original setting of an artist's garret in Paris was transported to the warehouse art district of present-day Beijing.

The creative anachronisms are all part of China's effort to develop a popular audience for opera, figuring that if the country is going to import Western culture, it might as well be high culture. Next to traditional Beijing opera, with its discordant tones and stilted pageantry, Puccini is sensuously modern.

"The Chinese have made a major commitment and investment in the performing arts. With such a large country with so many people crazy about classical music, we see a huge potential market here," said Elena Park, assistant marketing manager for New York's Metropolitan Opera.

China's newfound passion for Italian opera has a touch of the nouveau riche about it, as if the production of high culture were a rite of passage in the ascent onto the world stage. (Want to be a superpower? Need opera house. Check!)

Chinese like to boast that their new arts center, with its soaring titanium dome and $360-million price tag, is bigger than New York's Lincoln Center and Washington's Kennedy Center combined.

"The building and the facilities it provides are definitely first class. That's one of the reasons the opera festival attracted so many people -- the audiences wanted to see the building," said Deng Yijiang, vice president of the Beijing center.

But at times the artistry lags behind the infrastructure, as was evident from some of Puccini's recent misadventures in Beijing.

The modernized production of "La Boheme" opened with a two-minute video clip in which someone got off a Grand China Air flight in Beijing and rode in a Mercedes to the opera performance. Not coincidentally, Grand China Air and Mercedes-Benz were sponsors of the opera festival.

"It was terrifying what they did to Puccini. It gave pain to my aesthetic sensibilities," complained Tomasz Sajewicz, an opera buff who has lived in Beijing for four years as a reporter for Polish radio.

During some performances, people sitting in the front row were conspicuously texting on their cellphones.

"It makes me angry to see people in the best seats who don't appreciate the music," said a Chinese music student, an aspiring soprano who had paid $30 for a ticket.

Deng, the vice president of the arts center, concedes that Chinese audiences need some training. "Italian opera has only existed in China for 80 years, compared with 400 years in Italy," he said. "Our audiences have a limited understanding of opera, and we are only now trying to educate them."

It is only fair to point out: If the Chinese don't always grasp the fine points of Italian opera, Puccini didn't know much about China.

The composer, who died in 1924, never set foot in Asia, but he wrote two Asian-themed operas: "Turandot" and "Madame Butterfly," which is set in Japan. A Chinese melody that is incorporated into "Turandot" came from a music box owned by an Italian nobleman, according to a 1991 study of the opera by William Ashbrook and Harold Powers. The music scholars described the opera as "an unconscious manifestation of racial arrogance."

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