Shanghai surprise

A stunning new opera talent emerges from China

Shanghai surprise

Fleming: bumped into a baritone on the Bund

Foreign travellers to Shanghai often end up leaving with more than they arrive with. But even by Shanghai’s dizzying standards, leaving the city with an opera singer in tow is quite a feat.

But that’s what happened to America’s soprano superstar, Renee Fleming. She was travelling in Shanghai in early 2007 when she heard a young Chinese singer called Shenyang (not to be mistaken with the city). So impressed was she with his voice that she arranged for him to study at the Metropolitan Opera in New York where he prepared for the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, a major event for young opera singers. Shenyang ended up winning the competition, beating nearly 700 others.

The Chinese-born Western Opera singer has come a long way from his birthplace of Tianjin. In January, Shenyang gave a solo recital in Wales which garnered raving reviews from critics. Rian Evans at the Guardian, wrote, “[Shenyang] revealed a dramatic instinct that was spellbinding, unleashing his fullest and most glorious sound.”

As the country’s economy slows, China is looking to its cultural assets like Shenyang to boost growth. During the National People’s Congress last week, Ouyang Jian, the vice minister for culture, announced plans to spread Chinese arts across the globe, since – as the China Daily points out – “people needed more spiritual enjoyment during an economic recession.”

The recent announcement at the NPC should be a welcome push for the Peking Opera, China’s iconic national art. Based on Chinese history and folklore, Peking Opera is a combination of stylized action, singing, dialogue, mime, and acrobatic fighting and dancing. It became a cultural hit in the 19th century; Empress Dowager Cixi of the Qing Dynasty was said to be a huge fan. As times changed, however, the audiences began to find the traditional form of theatre hard to relate to and the archaic language difficult to understand.

The recent release of the movie, Forever Enthralled – a biopic on the Beijing Opera icon Mei Langfang, has put the once-beloved art back on the audience radars. Not only is the movie a huge commercial success – over Rmb110 million ($16 million) in ticket revenue so far – but more importantly, it has helped revive interest among the younger generation, who prior to the movie, had shown little interest in the opera.

In a new trend – for instance – young people are paying to have Peking Opera themed photos taken. There are around 10 studios in the capital that cater to such customers. The majority of business comes from female customers in their mid-to-late twenties, who are intrigued by the dramatic make up and elaborate costume. To add credibility to the shoot, professional performers are invited along to demonstrate some basic hand gestures, poses, and facial expressions.

As to cultural exports: whether Western audiences will find Peking Opera as charming as Shenyang’s baritone cadences remains a very open question.

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