The composer, cast and crew had already begun rehearsals in the egglike National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing when word came down from Chinese Communist Party officials in late August: The Sept. 30 world premiere of Huang Ruo’s (黃若) Dr Sun Yat-sen (中山 . 逸仙), a new opera depicting the revolutionary’s turbulent love life, would be postponed — indefinitely.
The center cited “logistical reasons” for the postponement. Opera Hong Kong, which commissioned the work, was privately given a different explanation.
“They were told the opera was not politically serious enough,” a member of the production team said, speaking on the condition of anonymity, as did others involved, because of the delicacy of the situation.
The source confirmed that Chen Ping (陳平), who serves jointly as president and party committee secretary of the center, made the final decision. The center did not return calls requesting comment.
A previously scheduled performance in Hong Kong on Thursday would now constitute the premiere. News media overseas and in the autonomous enclave of Hong Kong have speculated for weeks that the cancelation was politically motivated; China’s state-controlled media have remained silent on the topic.
In Beijing, an alternative opera, Chinese Orphan, from the center’s previous season, was prepared to be revived in place of Dr Sun Yat-sen. Ticket sales for Dr Sun were quietly halted, and mentions of it — including posters and videos in the lobby — disappeared. With hotels and rehearsal space already booked, cast members continued to rehearse in Beijing.
“People are afraid of speaking out,” a participant at one of those rehearsals said. “If we are seen as troublemakers, our careers in mainland China could be ruined.”
Another source close to the production said that “several singers used the pretext of ‘unsingable’ to try to quit,” eager to disassociate themselves from a production that had begun to exhibit signs of political fallout that were unlikely to have stemmed from simple logistical difficulties.
Last week the Swiss watchmaker Carl F. Bucherer, listed as “Title Sponsor, Opening Night” for the Hong Kong performances, disappeared from the roster of supporters in Opera Hong Kong’s publicity materials.
“We have withdrawn sponsorship,” a spokeswoman for Bucherer confirmed, declining to specify whether the decision was related to Bucherer’s ownership of a retail outlet in Beijing, its largest store in Asia.
Bucherer has remained a sponsor of 1911, Jackie Chan’s (成龍) revolutionary film epic, which hews to the orthodox depiction of Sun favored by films tailored for the mainland market: a heroic, mythic figure unlikely to dwell melodically on divorce with his soon-to-be ex-wife.
The Guangzhou Opera House, originally scheduled to present the opera on Dec. 9, has withdrawn as well.
“Unfortunately, we are not going to be able to present Dr Sun Yat-sen due to operational budgetary concerns,” a spokeswoman wrote in an e-mail.
The disruption has been felt on a practical level.
“They were expecting to have the score tightened and cut in Beijing, with the Western-style orchestra, before resetting it for the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra,” a source involved in the production said, referring to the ensemble of native Chinese instruments that will accompany the Hong Kong premiere. “Instead, we must adapt the score to the new timbre and make cuts at the same time.”
“I’d been working on this for four years,” said the 34-year-old Huang, whose opera, his first, had been thrown into disarray by the decision. “It was a shock. They had approved the libretto months in advance.”
It is unclear which aspect of the opera met with official disapproval. A review of the score and the libretto suggests that Dr Sun Yat-sen could have fallen victim to fast-changing boundaries in China’s volatile political climate. Controls generally tighten around important anniversaries, and the opera’s premiere was scheduled near two: Oct. 1, the 62nd anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, and on Monday, the centenary of Sun’s Nationalist revolution.
The suspension of a prominent magazine editor in south China, Zhao Lingmin (趙靈敏), over printed criticism of Sun’s “treasonous” dealings with Japan was reported widely in China days before the premiere was canceled. The line in the libretto “Sun Yat-sen, you traitor!” comes amid a romantic disagreement, but may nonetheless have gained sudden and unwelcome resonance.
The music, awash in rich colors drawn from widely spaced open-fifth chords and syncopated non-Western rhythms, does not fit the bright, brass-heavy triumphalism or sweeping romanticism favored in the classic propaganda plays that inform official tastes. Hearing an onstage choir sing “Strive for revolution to the very end!” over ambiguous floating fifths instead of triumphant trumpets might have given officials second thoughts.
The controversy comes amid deepening ties between Western cultural institutions and their Chinese counterparts.
A growing number of strategic agreements in the arts sector are driven by Westerners’ financial problems and cash-rich China’s desire to absorb and benefit from global talent.
The government is developing classical music as a major source of “soft power,” an official policy goal under the 12th Five-Year Plan. The arts center’s agreement to present Dr Sun Yat-sen was, until its cancelation, consistent with such bridge-building endeavors and not an obvious candidate for controversy.
The New York-based Huang, a Chinese-born graduate of the Oberlin College Conservatory and the Juilliard School, composed the score. Act I received a concert preview in May at New York City Opera’s Vox workshop, the first time City Opera choristers had sung in Mandarin. The opera’s librettist is the Hong Kong playwright Candace Chong, who recently collaborated with David Henry Hwang, as a translator in his comedy Chinglish, which opens on Broadway this month.
Even as allegations of censorship swirled around Dr Sun Yat-sen late last month, a delegation led by Chen, the arts center’s president, visited Washington to tour the Kennedy Center and sign a partnership agreement with the bankrupt Philadelphia Orchestra. That deal leverages the orchestra’s historic role as a cultural ambassador, providing travel, performance and teaching opportunities throughout China, far beyond the means of most nonprofits that have filed for Chapter 11 protection.
“We need to rethink the business model for how great music is made,” Craig Hamilton, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s vice president for government and community relations, said in a telephone interview. “I realize that things don’t work exactly the same way in China, but we are confident that this relationship is based on trust.”
Asked whether the orchestra was concerned about creative control, he replied: “I hope not. It’s a little bit of a leap of faith.”
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