The Last Opera: White Haired Girl 2011 (Happy Birthday!)

In a typically “birthday-present” mode, Wang Kun and the PLA went all out last summer to produce a nec plus ultra version of (new) China’s “first” opera:, White Haired Girl (1945). The occasion (in ancestral birthday terms) was the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Party (1921)- though a more useful count would be “66th birthday”, for that is the interval that divides what was in fact the first (and most successful) “reform” opera staged in Hebei in mid 1945 and the new, “Broadway” version of 2011, which was so up-scaled as to fill the gigantic stagespace of Andreu’s Party-pride National (“Egg”) Theatre.

To do its producers credit, the enterprise was intended to (and indeed succeeded in) taking the “Modern/Western” heritage of Romantic/Bel Canto grand opera literally, which meant a rebuild from the inside out of a much larger and more complex (and even teasingly humorous) panoply of songs and spoken interlude than the 1945 play/songwriters could have attempted in 1945, though I think they had something like this in mind “for the future”: parity always seems to be an issue, and so obviously in the end “New Opera” had to mean Grand Opera. So here, after 60-odd years of non-performance (qua “Reform” Opera), at last comes the test of whether something grand enough, and with DOMESTIC (not “export” or liminal) appeal could indeed be staged.

The staging thus completes a long-in-the-finishing loop: but perhaps not just for “this” opera but for ALL so-called modern style opera, for this genre has (had) been wallowing in failures and miscues for some time: blog chatter has it that the last full-blooded attempt at such an enterprise (Cangyuan, 1995: Liaoning Opera Company) had taken the form past viability and proven it simply wouldn’t play in or outside of China (shades of Tan Dun’s First Emperor, 2007). If any further proof be needed, there are no uploads anywhere of this (these) two last gasps at stagemusical grandeur – a lacuna very rarely to be found in the wild west of China uplaoding, especially where commercial gloss is not what is for sale.

Of course, there is one disturbing note: why did it have to be the PLA “Opera” Co. Money of course on one side, but the offset is an almost amateur looking assemblage of second line cast. They seem, the girls, still to be wearing orthodontic braces…

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