Opera travels well. Its stories are the stories of our collective humanity—love, loss, revenge, strife, rebellion, rejuvenation, absurdity, tragedy—and its archetypes not only define cultures but also connect them. In many respects, we can no longer speak in essentializing ways about Western opera or Chinese opera, but rather must address the world of opera and global operatic voices.
Approximately 180km east of the Middle Kingdom sits an island state commonly referred to as “The Bicycle Kingdom”. If you live in Japan, Europe, or North America and own a bicycle, there is a good chance that a number of its parts were manufactured in Taiwan. From ultra-light carbon fibre frames and the latest electric, smart and green technologies to various bike components ranging from tires, pedals, chains, saddles, grips, and even bike carriers for vehicles, Taiwan’s bicycle industry remains a global leader despite recent declines in exports and sales.
In one nightmarish vignette from his 1990 film Dreams the legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa imagines how life might look and feel following a nuclear meltdown in Japan. With the breach of six nuclear reactors, Japan’s residents flee to the sea, where most of them eventually drown, leaving a handful of humans amidst a radioactive landscape of blackened earth and sky. The only other living organisms are immense mutant dandelions, whose weighty yellow flower heads tower over the human figures. Twenty-one years later, the imagined world of nuclear disaster became reality when the March 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami resulted in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear incident.
On November 18th of this year, a blaze killed nineteen people in a textile manufacturing district of Beijing. Most of the victims were migrant workers, scores of whom continue to live peripheral lives in makeshift, pop-up neighborhoods on the outskirts of major cities across China. In response to the tragedy, the city government instituted a forty-day effort to demolish the capital’s “unsafe” buildings, the result of which has been mass evictions with tens of thousands of homeless migrant workers freezing in wintry Beijing temperatures. Described in official documents as the “low-end population”, these workers—battalions of couriers, cleaners, day laborers, trash collectors—provide the essential service jobs upon which Beijing’s more affluent residents rely.
Can the present save the past? Can the living save the dead? As South Korean author Han Kang revealed in a 2016 interview with the London-based magazine The White Review, these questions interested her during her twenties, only to resurface years later when drafting her novel Human Acts about the 1980 Gwangju Uprising and its aftermath. And they continue to resonate in her writing as evidenced by her most recent work The White Book.
Marlene Dietrich famously sang of still having a suitcase in Berlin, a wistful testament to the evocative power of memory and the hold that people and places can have on us. In many ways the unnamed Korean female narrator in Bae Suah’s novella A Greater Music has left her own suitcase in the German capital, one packed with scraps of memories from a broken intimate relationship with an older German woman and the morning-after emotions that surface when reflecting on a life lived elsewhere.