East Transforms West in Chinese Opera

"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.

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.

Although most Chinese composers busily working on the classical-music scene have lived in the West for decades, a few are based in China. In any case, they all seem bound by a common objective: exploring the limits of classical orchestras while keeping in touch with their own Chinese musical roots. As such, they've infused the European classical-music genre known for its bel canto arias and recitatives with Chinese melodic elements such as glissandos, and peppered the orchestra pit with Chinese musical instruments like the 15-string zheng (a Chinese lute) and the Chinese bamboo flute. They've also introduced some Chinese dance forms and incorporated Chinese opera-singing techniques and visuals such as Chinese-opera costumes and simpler sets. Madame White Snake has a male soprano, a clear nod to the origin of Chinese opera: until as late as the 20th century, men were the only ones allowed to perform onstage.

The U.S.-based composer Bright Sheng believes that on a deeper level, these practices have created nothing less than "a subtle aesthetic change of the Western opera genre." This can be seen in some recent stagings of Puccini's Turandot, where traditional gestures from Chinese opera are now sometimes adopted, or set décors offer a flattened perspective reflecting the two-dimensionality of a Chinese painting. It can also be seen in contemporary Western operas that, while they don't have Asian storylines, use more abstract plots. Chinese opera, and Asian opera in general, does not strive for the dramatic structure of Western operas, Sheng argues, pointing out that Asian audiences have traditionally been more interested in the actual execution of a performance in a Chinese opera rather than how the story—with which they are usually very familiar—unfolds. The one-act Poet Li Bai, for example, does not have much of a plot compared with a traditional European opera. "The characters are the poet, the wine, and the moon," says Tisa Ho, executive director of the Hong Kong Arts Festival. "There is no plot or dramatic action in the traditional sense, but it works. It is a wonderful opera."

Music critic Marc Rochester points out that China already has "phenomenal" opera singers who are honing their skills on Western operas; now they have an expanding array of homegrown work to perform. "I think it is quite smart on the part of these Chinese composers, who are mainly based in the West, to write operas which express their Chinese-ness," he says. "They're thinking that when dedicated opera houses are built, they will already have a body of Chinese-composed operas to showcase." And a growing base of enthusiastic fans, both local and international, for whom to perform them.