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Marco Polo

Print Share Updated: 2018-05-18 09:51

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China's original opera production, Marco Polo, which is composed and sung in Chinese language by both Western and Chinese singers, is being staged in Beijing through Saturday. [Photo Provided to China Daily]

Composed and written in Chinese and performed by both Western and Chinese singers, the opera Marco Polo is set to please music lovers. Chen Nan reports.

When Danish tenor Peter Lodahl sang at the grand theater of the Tianqiao Performing Arts Center in Beijing recently, what resounded off the walls of the hall was unlike any of his performances in the past 75 international opera productions of his career.

Hitting the high notes still proved to be a challenge, yet the 44-year-old tenor successfully managed to pull off his first performance singing in Chinese for the opera production, Marco Polo.

It is the first original Chinese opera produced by the Guangzhou Opera House for the Silk Road International League of Theaters, which was initiated by the China Arts and Entertainment Group in 2016. Representing 86 theaters from 32 countries and regions around the world, the league serves as a platform for the performing arts and was set up to promote cultural exchanges between China and other countries.

Marco Polo, which was composed and written in Chinese to be performed by both Western and Chinese singers, is based on the story of the Venetian explorer who traveled along the ancient Silk Road.

The story revolves around three Italian adventurers Marco, Niccolo and Maffeo Polo, who traveled along the Silk Road in the 13th century. The opera also charts the romance between Marco Polo and a young Chinese woman named Chuan Yun and the rise and fall of the Song and Yuan dynasties (960-1368).

After making its world premiere at the Guangzhou Opera House over May 4-6, the opera is now being staged in Beijing, running from Wednesday to Saturday.

Danish director Kasper Holten, former director of opera at the Royal Opera House in London from 2011 to 2017 and the current vice-president of the European Academy of Music Theatre, is directing the opera.

He invited Lodahl to sing in Marco Polo as the lead role but Lodahl initially turned it down.

"I speak six languages and have sung in 10 languages, but I have never sung in Chinese," says Lodahl, who studied at the Royal Academy of Music in Aarhus and at the Copenhagen Opera Academy, both in Denmark. He has worked with Holten on five opera productions to date. "Then I had second thoughts and decided to give it a try. Now, although I can't use Chinese in everyday conversation, I can sing in Chinese. And I'm looking forward to singing in more Chinese operas."

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China's original opera production, Marco Polo, which is composed and sung in Chinese language by both Western and Chinese singers, is being staged in Beijing through Saturday. [Photo Provided to China Daily]

The other Western singers, including Damian Thantrey as Maffeo Polo and Jonathan Gunthorpe as Niccolo Polo, also learned to sing in Chinese from scratch.

According to Li Jinsheng, president of the China Arts and Entertainment Group, the opera took about three years to put together a team of international artists. Among them are London-based video designer Luke Halls, who was a member of the creative team behind the closing ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympics and Paralympics, and London-based set and costume designer Emma Ryott, who designed more than 1,800 costumes and accessories for this opera.

Munich-based composer Enjott Schneider spent 10 weeks finishing the three-hour opera, which would have normally taken two years to complete.

From August to October, he worked day and night on the libretto written by Wei Jin, one of the most influential poets in contemporary Chinese literature.

Since Schneider doesn't speak Chinese, a Chinese friend of his wrote out the words in pinyin and added the German translation under each line of the libretto.

"The sounds of each Chinese word is very different from Italian, one of the most common languages in opera productions. It was a big challenge for me to compose using the Chinese language," says Schneider, who is the chairman of the board of the German collecting society and performance rights organization, Gema.

The composer, who has a wide range of repertories for film, television, chamber works, orchestral music and operas, started researching Chinese music in the 1990s, which enabled him to combine traditional Chinese folk sounds with Mongolian music and Western classical music.

In the opera, audiences can hear the distinctive sounds of Chinese musical instruments, including the erhu, yangqin (a Chinese dulcimer) and bamboo flute, combined with khoomei (traditional Mongolian throat-singing) - all set against the backdrop of symphony orchestra.

"My interest in Chinese music started with the traditional Chinese philosophies, such as Taoism," says the composer.

Along with his Chinese musician friends - sheng player Wu Wei and erhu player Yan Jiemin - Schneider composed the concerto for sheng and orchestra and symphony No. 3 for alto and sheng.

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Munichbased composer Enjott Schneider (right) and Chinese poet Wei Jin at the Tianqiao Performing Arts Center in Beijing on Monday. [Photo Provided to China Daily]

 He says the subject of Marco Polo was also inspiring because "Marco Polo is a sign for connecting cultures".

"Besides the significance of composing completely for a Chinese opera, I believe that the opera delivers something more, that is, love and peace. It's especially meaningful now because there are so many wars and misunderstandings in the world," the composer adds.

The Chinese cast includes tenors Tian Haojiang and Zhao Ming as Kublai Khan, baritones Yuan Chenye and Wang Yunpeng as Wen Tianxiang and mezzo-soprano Liang Ning as Liu Niang.

Unlike the premiere in Guangzhou, which saw the Macao Symphony Orchestra perform under the baton of Tang Muhai, one of the most acclaimed Chinese conductors, the Tianjin Symphony Orchestra will join Tang when the opera is staged in Beijing.

"I have been traveling between the East and the West since the 1980s and I've been trying to bridge the different cultures through music. The process of making this opera, Marco Polo, has been a major effort of communication," says Tang.

According to Jiang Yimin, a professor at the Peking University Academy of Opera, unlike some Western opera houses, which are cutting budgets and losing audiences, especially from the younger generations, China's opera houses and theaters, such as the National Center for the Performing Arts and the Guangzhou Opera House, are thriving in their productions of original and classical operas.

In 2017, about 130 opera productions were produced in China, Jiang says.

"Now, with Marco Polo, which is a new landmark in the opera scene in China, more Western singers and composers will be interested in China, and audiences will also take a fresh look at original opera productions in the country," says Jiang.