Revived opera speaks of war's tragedy

Updated: 2015-09-05 07:46

By Zhang Chunyan(China Daily Europe)

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Performers from Nanjing University of the Arts bring a work considered China's first modern opera to the Edinburgh Festival

More than 75 years ago, after Japanese troops had invaded China, a tragic story that is said to be true occurred to a Japanese couple during the war.

A young Japanese soldier named Gongyi was sent to China three months after getting married to his beloved, Qiuzi, in Japan.

Revived opera speaks of war's tragedy

Revived opera speaks of war's tragedy

Top left: Artists from Nanjing University of the Arts in China bring Qiuzi, the original Chinese modern opera, to this year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe from Aug 26 to 29.Top right: Chinese artists and students from Nanjing University of the Arts do a street performance in Edinburgh. Above: A scene in the opera. [Siman Xie / provided to China Daily]

While Gongyi was away, Qiuzi was also sent to China to become a "comfort woman", or sexual slave, forced to join a "service club" for Japanese soldiers at the Green Willow Hotel in Yangzhou, Jiangsu province.

One day, they unexpectedly met, and after Gongyi's discovery of his wife's suffering, the young couple committed suicide out of sorrow, guilt and regret.

Qiuzi, based on the story, which is billed as the original Chinese modern opera, was performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for the first time in late August. Chinese artists and student performers from Nanjing University of the Arts brought the work to the festival, which organizers say is the world's largest arts festival, with the 2014 event spanning 25 days and featuring over 3,193 shows from 51 countries and regions in 299 venues.

"The Fringe is famous for its creativity, diversity and international openness, so it is suitable to stage our opera, with its anti-war appeal," says Qian Tai, director of the opera, adding that especially during the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, it had an even greater resonance.

"Showing the cruelty and suffering of the war, the tragic opera demonstrates that war is the true crime, and war also gave Japanese people pain," he says.

This year marks the China-UK Year of Cultural Exchange, the cast of Qiuzi aimed to boost cultural communication between China and Britain, Qian says.

"Qiuzi is the first opera written in the form of Western grand opera. It is a milestone in the history of Chinese opera."

The play based on the same story was written first by Chen Ding, and the opera was created in 1941 with lyrics by Zang Yunyuan and Li Jia and music by Huang Yuanluo, Qian says.

Despite living under the threat of the invading Japanese - starting with Japan's takeover of Manchuria in 1931 and all-out war between the nations that started in 1937 - the writers of Qiuzi, with their sympathetic portrayal of the young but doomed Japanese couple, produced a sensitive, fair and courageous, anti-war script with exceptional style and honesty, he says.

The premier in 1942 was shown at the Guotai Theater in Chongqing, which became the capital of China's Nationalist forces during much of the war. In the following four years, Qiuzi was performed 52 times to broad popular acclaim all over China.

"In 2014, we got the chance to re-imagine the opera and officially presented it to Chinese audiences on Dec 12, 2014, one day before China's National Memorial Day for Nanjing Massacre Victims," Qian says.

Zhou Jianming, head of the Music Department of Nanjing University of the Arts, says: "We started the project with a meticulous walkthrough of the script we kept from over 70 years ago. We kept whole story lines in order to make it original.

"However, in terms of the music, we could only recover sheets of 39 songs written in numbered notations, some of which could not be fully restored. Therefore, our musicians rewrote some of the original songs and added five new soprano songs, as well as a full composition of accompaniment," Zhou adds.

Cao Lin, who plays the chief actress Qiuzi in the opera, said it was very difficult for her to develop the character at the beginning.

"The life of the young Japanese woman Qiuzi was quite different from mine, and her romantic tragedy during the war shocked me," Cao says, adding that she lay awake at night thinking how to play the role well.

"I am open, cheerful and outgoing, while Qiuzi is very depressed in this show. I trained myself, using music and Japanese dances, to play this role professionally. Finally I did it, and also raised myself from just singing songs to singing opera.

"The Western grand opera is quite different from traditional Chinese operas such as Peking Opera. Key tunes are very well written, though composed by local musicians. So we have actually carried forward the tradition in the creation of Qiuzi," Cao says.

The opera was performed at Nicolson Square Theater in Edinburgh. Though performed in Chinese, English and Chinese subtitles were available during the show.

It received a very warm welcome from audience.

Audience member Meruyn Miller, from the Isle of Man, said: "We have seen hundreds of productions in Edinburgh. This was by far the greatest and the best!"

Geraldine Gysin, from Edinburgh, said: "To hear young people put something together like this gives me hope for the world. Very touching."

Michael from Edinburgh University said: "I really enjoyed the performance - it was beautiful and touching. I especially liked the part where the commander, supposedly the villain in the show, showed his desperation and struggle."

A Japanese actor in Okinawa Sansan, performed at the same theater, watched Qiuzi and said: "Even without following the subtitles - our English isn't so good - we were amazed to witness such a show. The stage, as well as the leading roles were all so beautiful. We loved it."

A couple named Michael and Shellie from Edinburgh wrote in a comment book after the show: "The performance made me cry from the heart, wish our world leaders would watch this."

Qian said the cast members were touched. "The warm comments from audience were even better than we expected, really making us excited." He said one couple in the audience gave each other a big hug for a long time, with tears in their eyes, after the performance finished.

Cao added: "I think the audience understands what the opera wants to say. War is against humanity. We would love to show that Chinese people really cherish peace and oppose war."

Xiao Lang contributed to this story.

(China Daily European Weekly 09/05/2015 page26)