The term “Chinese opera” usually refers to the traditional Chinese art form, but there are an increasing number of examples of modern attempts—such as the recent Dream of the Red Chamber—at a sort of cultural fusion of Chinese themes and traditions with Western operatic style and format. It is probably fair to say that none of these yet rises to the level of a Rigoletto or Carmen in the minds of either the public or critics, but the potential cultural rewards of a Chinese operatic repertoire successfully existing alongside and complementing the European ones are so obvious that is commendable and hardly surprising that the efforts are accelerating.
So it is encouraging that Hong Kong’s Musica Viva has revived its production of the The Legend of Zhang Baozai, a one-act, Mandarin-language opera set in Southern China in the early years in the nineteenth century. The work debuted in 2010 at the Shanghai expo and tells the story of a conflict between pirates and the Qing Dynasty in the area around what a few decades later became Hong Kong. Zhang Baozai (Cheung Po Tsai in Cantonese) was a historical character and is closely associated with Hong Kong.
The Legend of Zhang Baozai isn’t neo-anything.
The plot is relatively complicated for such a short work. On the death of the leader of the Red Flag pirates, Zhang is chosen as the new leader by divination by Shi, the previous leader’s wife. Zhang and his collaborator cum competitor Xiao often clash as to tactics, with Xiao advocating hard-fisted tactics in the struggle against the Qing while Zhang often looks for more reasoned solutions. This narrative intersects with that of Admiral Sun and his wife Duanmu. In the dramatic highpoint of the piece, Sun and his wife are captured by the pirates after they storm a festival. Duanmu—who had treated the pirate widow Shi before her marriage—offers herself as a hostage in exchange for the Admiral’s release. Duanmu’s good treatment at the hands of Zhang is rewarded when he is in turn surrounded by Sun in a later encounter. In the finale, Zhang turns himself in and is rewarded with a commission.
The score by Lo Hau-man includes many operatic conventions—arias, duets, ensembles—but makes great use of Chinese instruments. The pleasant and evocative result is Chinese music—and no small amount of dance—in a Western format rather than Western music with Chinese elements.
Each character has, Lo says in the program, been “typecast” with a distinct personality characterised through music. Whether by design or in consequence, narrative and conflict happen through the juxtaposition of these relatively static elements rather than through dramatic tension and character development. Some dramatic (albeit possibly ahistorical) possibilities, such as the love between the new leader Zhang and the widow Shi, go unexplored. And while the opera seems to celebrate Zhang’s capitulation to the heretofore unloved Qing regime, observers might be forgiven some ambivalence. Verdi, it is hard not to think, might have done it differently.
But of course The Legend of Zhang Baozai isn’t Verdi. Rather, it seems authentic and original, not neo-anything, and an honest attempt to explore how the Western operatic format can be adapted to Chinese stories, language and musical traditions.
These daytime performances were targeted at Hong Kong high school students; that performances were not also given in the evening for the general population must be the result of the vagaries of Hong Kong arts funding. Technically, the production values were above the minimum that might have otherwise sufficed. The orchestra was small and intimate, their playing clear. The sets were simple, elegant and unobtrusive. The local cast sang particularly well in the ensembles, evidence of good chemistry.
The Legend of Zhang Baozai may be about the past, but it is also a signpost along the way to a Chinese operatic future.