A Night at the Chinese Opera
Theatre Royal, Glasgow, Fri 11 & Sat 19 Apr, Tue 20 & Thu 22 May; Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Wed 25 & Fri 27 Jun
Pick up any newspaper these days and the chances are that a story about China will be making the headlines. Whether it’s the Beijing Olympics, the new panda cub born to Chinese parents at Vienna Zoo, the developing economy or political tensions with Tibet, China seems to be taking an increasingly central position in world affairs. Closer to home, the stage is Scottish Opera’s and on it is Lee Blakeley’s new production of Judith Weir’s deservedly well received and highly enjoyable A Night at the Chinese Opera.
Commissioned by the BBC and written in 1987, the China of Weir’s piece is not of today, but that of the 13th century, when China was under the rule of the Yuan Dynasty, established by Genghis Khan. There are, however, parallels to be found in Weir’s tale, the story of a young man growing up in a country invaded by tyrants, whether between the China of today and her 700 year-old incarnation, or China as it was when she was writing the piece.
‘In a way, it’s a story like occupied Europe,’ she says, ‘and that’s a theme that is still important today. This time, it is the Chinese who are occupying Tibet. The question in such a situation is: “What do you do as an individual? What can your reaction be? What is your role?”’
When revenge is the response of Weir’s central character, he is captured and executed, so her timeless questions offer no easy answers. Weir grew up during the period when Chairman Mao ruled as leader of China, with the Tiananmen Square protests against his communist legacy simmering just around the corner. ‘But,’ she adds, ‘the opera is not a piece about China’s political history, it is about any political regime.’
A Night at the Chinese Opera is in three acts, with the middle one featuring Weir’s transcriptions of Chinese folk music and an almost complete version of a Chinese play.
‘It is very much inspired by what I heard of live Chinese music theatre, with influences of tonal and pitch differences in speech. In the outer two acts, people have commented that there are echoes of Chinese music, but I’m not sure if that can be true,’ Weir explains. ‘It is essentially my music, which is in the Western classical tradition.’
She doesn’t use traditional Chinese instruments as such in the score, but there are gongs aplenty. ‘The percussionist and I spent an afternoon in a percussion store hearing every possible gong. By the time we’d finished, he could have played a saucepan lid and I’d have said OK.’
No woks to watch out for then, but beautifully crafted music, a real sense of storytelling and drama coupled with colourful scoring.