The Shanghai Grand Theater launched its 2021-22 performing season with a new production of operas Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci on Sept 3. The two Italian operas, composed by Pietro Mascagni and Ruggero Leonavallo, respectively, are based on true events in the 19th century and are often performed together.
He Hui, the leading star of the production, who plays the role of the heroine in the two operas, is an acclaimed Chinese soprano and has been active in the world opera scene for decades. She says the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the cancellation of many opera productions around the world, which left her with little choice but to sing in recitals and concerts instead last year.
"As a veteran opera singer, it is painful to be unable to sing in a proper opera," she says. "I am very grateful for the opportunity to perform the operas in China, and I cherish the collaboration with Maestro Xu Zhong and the Shanghai Opera House. I feel like I've come back to life when I am singing in an opera."
Xu Zhong, director of the Shanghai Opera House, used to conduct these two operas in Italy, where he served as the music director of the Teatro Massimo Bellini. In 2014, Xu brought the Italian opera productions to the Shanghai Culture Square, as the closing piece of the Shanghai Spring Music Festival.
"Maestro Xu is proficient with these two operas, and we have hired a vocal coach and language coach, as well as a British theater director to ensure quality of the production and retain the authentic Italian flavor," says Zhang Qingxin, deputy director of the Shanghai Opera House, who is also the executive director of the new production.
According to Zhang, director Martin Constantine created the overall concept of the performance while he was always onsite to ensure that his ideas were fully carried out. The director and coaches worked with the actors and actresses via video conference, and reviewed rehearsal recordings.
The Shanghai Opera House decided to present the opera in a concert format and without building elaborate stage design and props so that it could limit financial losses in the event of pandemic-related cancellation of the performance, Zhang says.
After the premiere in Shanghai, the opera production will tour Suzhou, Jiangsu province, and be part of programs of the Shanghai Grand Opera House, a new theater that is scheduled to open in the coming years.
The municipal government announced earlier this month measures it will take to implement the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25) for cultural development.
A series of new facilities such as the east wings of the Shanghai Library and Shanghai Museum, the Shanghai Grand Opera House and the Children's Library in Pudong district, will be opened to the public during this period, according to Fang Shizhong, head of Shanghai's administration of culture and tourism.
The Shanghai Grand Theater's new season consists of a number of productions that will debut in the city.
A new dance theater production inspired by a well-known artwork in China－a long scroll painting, titled A Panorama of Mountains and Rivers, will debut in Shanghai on Sept 24. Created by choreographers Zhou Liya and Han Zhen, the production will be performed by the China Oriental Performing Arts Group.
The duo's creation for the Shanghai Dance Theater, a revolution-themed dance drama, titled The Eternal Wave, which received critical acclaim, will be staged from Oct 13 to Nov 7 at the Majestic Theater in Shanghai. The Peking Opera symphonic cycle Grand Canal of Beijing City will be presented on Oct 18 by the Beijing Symphony Orchestra and the Jingju Theater of Beijing. The production depicts the landscape of the Beijing section of the Grand Canal and tells a story about the evolution of the centuries-old waterway.
Renowned composer Tan Dun will conduct the Shanghai Chinese Orchestra to play Buddha Passion: An Audible Silk Road on New Year's Eve. Tan created the composition in 2018 and adapted it to Chinese instruments for the orchestra earlier this year. To adapt the piece to Chinese instruments, Tan studied the music scenes depicted in murals of the Mogao Caves in Gansu province and made changes according to the sounds of folk instruments, as well as the performance styles of individual artists from the Shanghai Chinese Orchestra.
On Sept 3, the Shanghai Culture Square announced its latest "annual hits" performance plan, consisting of 47 shows for five productions to be staged from November to January in 2022. The productions include musicals in Chinese－Romeo and Juliet, Into the White Night and Fan Letter, and two Chinese dramas, The Dream of the Red Chamber, and The Yellow Storm.
Fei Yuanhong, artistic director of the Shanghai Culture Square, the leading venue for musical performances in Shanghai, said on Sept 3, "we have entered a new period when Chinese actors and actresses perform musicals for Chinese audiences".
Since the inauguration of the theater in 2011, the Shanghai Culture Square has presented a total of 450 performances of 24 productions, including successful shows from Broadway and the West End, as well as musicals from Germany and France, in its "annual hits" program. The productions have been seen by more than 600,000 people, winning commercial success. Many shows embarked on national tours later and were received well. More importantly, Fei says, the productions nurture Shanghai audiences' "love for musicals".
Although the pandemic has brought unprecedented challenges to live entertainment everywhere, opportunities for Chinese theater productions have opened up with many international performances halting.
Fei says he is glad to see the theater's efforts to adapt foreign musicals into Chinese, and the incubation of original Chinese shows has also led to fruitful achievements.
Into the White Night, for example, is a musical adapted from a best-selling novel by Japanese author Keigo Higashino. Produced by Ran Space and starring Liu Lingfei and Han Xue, the musical adaptation premiered in 2018 and won acclaim after touring China for four years. The production will hold its 100th show from Jan 1-9 at the Shanghai Culture Square's annual event.
The Dream of the Red Chamber, which will be shown on New Year's Eve at the Shanghai Culture Square, is the latest creation of the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center. Written by Yu Rongjun, the artistic director of the arts center, the 6-hour play made its debut at the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center on Sept 2 and is running through Sept 25.
The Dream of the Red Chamber is "undoubtedly the most important literary classic of China", Yu says. "The Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center has cultivated a strong team of creative talent, built a large collection of quality repertoire through the past decades, and I think we are ready for such a heavy-weight subject."
It is a risky decision to create a theater production that lasts six hours. Because of the length, the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center split the piece into two chapters that are presented over two evening sessions. The audiences, says Yu, are receptive to this.
"Audiences have the patience to sit in the theater for six hours, and immerse themselves in the stories about the decline of a big Chinese family," he tells China Daily.
Adapting a most acclaimed novel in Chinese literature to a theater production was a risky move, he says, but it was done together. "The show is created by theater workers and audiences."
On Sept 4, the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra kicked off its 2021-22 season with a concert, titled The Song of the Earth, performed under the baton of Yu Long, music director of the company. The concert consisted of Gustav Mahler's song symphony Das Lied von der Erde, and a new composition by Chinese musician Ye Xiaogang using ancient Chinese poems Mahler set his music to.
Yu says the season's opening work "explores a new depth in ancient Chinese literature in world culture", adding "the new Chinese interpretation can present the subtle and rich meaning of the original Chinese text in Mahler's song better" and create dialogue between Chinese and Western cultures.
With more than 40 concerts featuring a wide range of topics and themes scheduled for 2021-22, the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra has introduced one of the most colorful music seasons, Yu says.
"As a professional symphony this is our way of keeping the normal pace of work. You have to keep rehearsing and striving for excellence," Yu says.
The silver lining in the dark cloud of the pandemic is that young Chinese artists have come up as they have had more opportunities to play, he adds.
"Audiences are drawn back to the concert hall, because watching shows on the web is nothing like attending a real concert."
The Shanghai Oriental Art Center also kicked off its 2021-22 performing season on Sept 9, with a concert of three Chinese tenors: Wei Song, Warren Mok and Dai Yuqiang. Another well-known tenor, Shi Yijie, will join pianist Chen Sa to present a concert of Chinese art songs on Jan 14. He Hui, the celebrated soprano, will give a recital on Dec 5.
The Rainbow Chamber Singers, a chorus group that is popular among younger audiences in China, will present a series of concerts at the Shanghai Oriental Art Center during the National Day holiday in October, as well as on New Year's Day and on Jan 15-16.
A range of theater productions, from dramatic adaptations of literary classics to ballets and Chinese dance theater shows will be presented during the new season at the Shanghai Oriental Art Center. The center will also host its first outdoor music festival at the Century Park in October, when traditional folk artists, such as Kunqu Opera singer Zhang Jun and Pingtan artist Gao Bowen, will perform alongside modern pop and jazz singers.