Monday, July 9, 2012


National Theater
July 10

Red Cliff updates traditional Chinese opera.

It would be an exaggeration to say that Prague is being invaded by a cultural Red Army this week – but not by much. The Beijing Opera rolled into town over the weekend with a troupe of 160 performers and support staff, three truckloads of elaborate sets and costumes, and a production billed as a “blockbuster.”

That description is not much of an exaggeration, either. Created with an eye toward capturing younger domestic viewers and building an international audience, Red Cliff premiered in Beijing in 2008 and went on for a run of 58 performances, attracting more than 100,000 people. Though it draws on the conventions of the world-famous Peking Opera, Red Cliff was mounted as a co-production with Chinaʼs National Center for the Performing Arts, which has been charged with putting a fresh face on traditional Chinese culture.

So the production has distinctly modern touches. Peking Opera sets are usually no more than a table and chairs; this one offers extravagant multi-tiered facades, spectacular lighting effects and plenty of dry ice smoke. The costumes make Lady Gaga look banal. And some of Chinaʼs biggest talents were recruited for the production, including director Zhang Jigang, who choreographed the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The director paid great attention to keeping basic Peking Opera elements while adding modern technologies, especially in the lighting,” says Guan Bo, the National Center producer who is traveling with the production. “People familiar with the Peking Opera will recognize certain reference points, but even those have been updated and enriched.”

A visual extravaganza.
The story concerns a well-known battle from the Three Kingdoms period in China (around 200 AD), when the founders of the Wu and Shu kingdoms combined forces to defeat the warlord Cao Cao and drive him back to the north. Foreigners may have problems keeping up with the intricacies of the plot, which starts with Cao Caoʼs declaration of war and climaxes with two big battle scenes. But many of the visual elements need no translation: 10,000 arrows flying through the air, roaring flames on a cliff, battleships clashing on the Yangtze River.

The music is performed by an 18-piece orchestra playing mostly traditional Chinese instruments. The singers do not fall into standard Western vocal categories – soprano, tenor, etc. – relying instead on acting to develop characterization. And for this performance, there will be Czech surtitles (though none, alas, in English).

Trimmed in length and scaled down to fit on European stages, Red Cliff represents the National Centerʼs inaugural effort to export Chinese culture, and was chosen with modern branding in mind. “We have many good productions that could go abroad,” Bo says. “We felt this was the most representative of China, and exemplifies what the National Center stands for.”

Asked what he hopes local audiences will get from the performance, Bo says, “The same thing people go to Western operas for – an interesting story, great music, singing and acting. Of course, we also hope this will be an engine to encourage people to learn more about traditional Chinese culture.”

Prague is the last stop for Red Cliff, which also played in Vienna and Budapest the past two weeks. If audience reaction is any measure, the tour has been a success.

The Burgtheater in Vienna has no air-conditioning, so the audiences sat through a three-hour performance in nearly 40 degree temperatures,” Bo says. “Still, we sold out the opening performance and had 80-90 percent ticket sales the other nights. So I would say we had a warm welcome there. Really warm.”

Photos courtesy of the National Theater

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