Mei Lanfang: A Symphonic Drama by the Beijing Opera
Mei Lanfang is an innovative production: both in terms of its content and eponymous hero, who is presented here in the musical form of an opera, and its co-operation with one of China’s most famous cultural institutions. The opera is about Mei Lanfang – a truly legendary figure. People all over China see him as an icon of their country’s opera tradition and high culture. Almost everyone knows his name. Zhu Shaoyu’s composition draws on the traditional orchestration used in Beijing Opera, which he combines with western orchestral and choral music.
The Beijing Jingju Theatre, directed by Wang Yuzhen, who helped to make this co-operation project possible, is China’s largest Beijing Opera ensemble; it has 700 employees, as well as a number of star performers who are well known throughout the land, and a repertoire of 300 pieces. It also has the richest tradition of any Chinese opera. Now, for the first time, it will be giving a guest performance in Europe. This encounter between Chinese and Western culture doesn’t end there: for musicians and soloist singers from the Komische Oper will rehearse the score and then perform it together with ten Chinese instrumentalists in both the orchestra rehearsals and the stage performances.
The themes of tradition and renewal are reflected in the person of Mei Lanfang. Even the production itself is a much-discussed example of the way traditional forms can be translated into a modern, contemporary language. There will be introductory events and a discussion with the audience to present the contextualisation of the piece as well as additional information on the opera and its hero. By dealing with Mei Lanfang’s life and the famous roles he played, the opera also reflects the history of China, especially as it was at the time of the Japanese occupation. Mei, who was born into a famous family of opera performers in 1894, first appeared on stage at the age of twelve. He specialised in performing women’s roles: from tender young girls to fierce warriors. However, Mei Lanfang is not only one of the most outstanding performers in Beijing Opera, he also played an important part in its revival. He integrated old dance and mime traditions into his art, performed operas on contemporary issues in newly designed clothes, changed the traditional instrumentation, and founded his own training centre for Beijing Opera.
Mei also introduced this form of music theatre to people outside China. He toured Japan in the early decades of the last century and after the end of the war. In the 1930s, he went to the USA; in 1935, he performed in the Soviet Union. Remarks made by Maxim Gorky, Konstantine Sergejevitch Stanislavski and Rabindranath Tagore reveal how fascinating his role-play was for audiences throughout the world. From the outbreak of the second Sino-Japanese war in 1937 right up until the end of the Second World War, he withdrew from the stage in protest at the Japanese invasion. In Communist China, he held political and cultural offices and became director of the Beijing Jingju Theatre. In 1961, Mei Lanfang died of a heart disease. Intense study of Mei Lanfang’s stage art inspired Bertolt Brecht to develop some important aspects of his own theory of the theatre.
In 1935, Brecht saw Mei performing in Moscow. He reflected upon this encounter in his notes on the “Alienation-effect in Chinese theatre”. Brecht interpreted Mei’s art as a system of signs and references that prevented the performer from identifying with his role. Not only the spectator but also the performer was a critical observer in the events unfolding on stage. Mei didn’t live out his roles, he demonstrated them, and it was this that made him a model for Brecht’s concept of the actor.
In May 2004, the Beijing Jingju Theatre premièred the ‘symphonic drama’ Mei Lanfang to honour its former director and to celebrate the 110th anniversary of this legend of the opera. Chen Xinyi, the woman staging the present production, is China’s best-known theatre director. She also sees herself in the Brechtian theatre tradition. Top performers from all over China are playing in this peformance, in which Yu Kuizhi plays the leading role. Yu is a master of the Beijing Opera tradition. In China, he enjoys the popularity of a pop star.
A co-operation project of the Komische Oper Berlin, the Beijing Jingju Theatre and the House of World Culture. Performed at the Komische Oper Berlin.