Published - Chinese Opera: Classical Returns

"The Legend of the White Snake” is one of the most famous Chinese tales. The story of a young scholar bewitched by a beautiful woman who is really a powerful white-snake demon has given rise to countless Chinese opera productions, films, and TV series. It is now also a Western-style opera performed in English that is set to tour China. Written by Kansas-based Chinese composer Zhou Long, the score of Madame White Snake follows musically in the grand tradition of European operas but also borrows from Chinese opera, integrating traditional Chinese instruments such as the bamboo and clay flute and the erhu, a two-string fiddle.

In many ways, the new opera exemplifies the rising importance of China on the Western classical-music scene. After years of completely shunning classical music during the Cultural Revolution, China has embraced it with gusto. In the last two years, countless municipalities have been hard at work building grand concert halls, and more than 10 classical-music festivals have been mounted throughout the country. At the same time, millions of Chinese children are reportedly learning to play Western musical instruments in the hopes of becoming the next Lang Lang or Yundi Li.

But Chinese influence on Western classical music goes far beyond the rise of new star soloists; it’s affecting the music itself. In recent years a flurry of Western-style operas with distinctive Chinese flavors have premiered internationally, including Bright Sheng’s Madame Mao (2003), Tan Dun’s The First Emperor (2006), and Guo Wenjing’s Poet Li Bai (2007). In October a new four-act Western opera, tentatively called Farewell My Overlord and written by Chinese composer Xiaogang Ye, will premiere at the Beijing Music Festival, where Madame White Snake, first staged in Boston earlier this year, will be reprised. Read the whole NEWSWEEK story