A country at the opera

By Raymond Zhou ( China Daily ) Updated: 2013-10-18 00:23:23

As bicentennial celebrations of the opera world's twin titans build up to a crescendo, Raymond Zhou takes time to look back at how far China has come in embracing Wagner and Verdi in our musical life.

A country at the opera

Soprano Wang Wei plays Brunnhilde in Die Walkure. Provided to China Daily

Wagner in China

A country at the opera

The Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin reached China around the fin de siecle — so long ago that an ancient Chinese love poem was adopted for its lyrics. Of course it was limited to the elite who had exposure to Western culture.

For the most part, Richard Wagner did not receive advocacy in China by music makers, but rather by men of letters. Renowned poet Xu Zhimo published the following lines in Shanghai in 1923: "Is it the power of gods or magic / That whips up thunder and lightning / Storms and wails / Waves of desperate sea… / Emotions, rage, generosity and melancholia / Are stirred up by strings and brass / Into a music drama inimitable / By Wagner, a pioneer in the sound and the heart." It's not among Xu's better-known works, but who else in China had enjoyed Wagner in a hall as he probably did while studying in England.

In the 1940s, some Chinese disciples of Nietzsche mentioned Wagner and his Ring in their treatises, but few understood what they were talking about. For the first three decades of New China, Wagner was non-existent even in the teachings of the nation's music academies because he was not one of those artists endorsed by Marxist authorities. When Yan Baoyu, a scholar educated in Germany and exposed to Wagner's music, was invited in 1980 to submit an entry on this giant of German culture to a new Chinese encyclopedia, he was allowed to touch on only Wagner's literary writings, but not his music.

In 1987, a Wagner biography in Chinese translation was published. Ten years later, the Chinese librettos of all his operas came out in a two-volume set, edited by Liu Xuefeng, who has since gone on to be a major apostle for Wagner in China. Chen Weizheng, a Chinese emigrant in Germany, has been attending the Bayreuth Festival for two decades, filing reports to the Chinese press and inviting Chinese enthusiasts to join him.

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.


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