Lustful Opera, Censored, Befuddles Chinese
By ANDREW JACOBS
BEIJING — As any artist or performer in China knows, it is impossible
to predict what will set off the mercurial culture censors who have
sweeping power over the content of film, music, television and print.
On Sunday, it was the depiction of a sexually aroused, anatomically
correct male donkey and references to capital punishment that nearly
derailed an ambitious interpretation of the Handel opera "Semele," the
tragic tale of what happens when a lustful god, a vengeful goddess and
an impressionable young maiden are ensnared in a love triangle.
In the end, officials allowed the donkey to remain onstage, but they
insisted on a number of last-minute changes that significantly altered
the production and left the audience perplexed.
The opera, directed by Zhang Huan, one of China's most
boundary-pushing artists, sold out nine performances last year in
Brussels with its melding of Baroque music, Greek mythology, Chinese
cultural references and modern touches that included sumo wrestlers,
flashes of nudity and rousing audience participation.
Lady Linda Wong Davies, an opera patron whose London-based foundation
brought the production here for the annual Beijing Music Festival,
said her goal was to expose Chinese audiences to Western-style opera
and to build bridges between China and the rest of the world. "I
wanted to bring to life an 18th-century German composer's work through
the eyes of a contemporary Chinese artist," she said.
Even before the cast arrived from Europe, Chinese officials who saw
the production in Brussels insisted on a number of changes: they
vetoed the singing of the Communist anthem "The Internationale" during
the finale — too provocative, apparently — and suggested a costume
change for the Greek chorus, whose burgundy and saffron robes too
closely resembled those worn by Tibetan monks.
Those and a few other demands — no nudity, less violence and fewer
sexually suggestive gestures — were easy enough to meet, Mr. Zhang
But after officials from the Ministry of Culture watched a dress
rehearsal on Saturday, they decided that the donkey — two actors
draped in fabric — was revealing too much of the animal's anatomy.
More ominously, they objected to a short documentary, which was
screened during the overture, that explained how the gracefully carved
frame of a 450-year-old Chinese temple had made its way onto the stage
of the Poly Theater in Beijing.
Three years ago, Mr. Zhang bought the building and its contents from
an impoverished family who had been its occupants for two decades.
While taking apart the structure, the director discovered a diary
written by the broken-hearted husband. The man, Fang Jixin, wrote
about how the adulterous behavior of his wife had driven him to
alcoholism, and eventually madness. In the end, after he murdered his
wife's lover, Mr. Fang was arrested and put to death.
"I was amazed how this tale out of contemporary China was like the
Greek tragedy, and it inspired me to do this production," said Mr.
Although he declined to discuss the censors' specific objections about
the documentary, others who worked on the opera said it was the
mention of the husband's crime, and especially his punishment, that
troubled the authorities.
Their solution was not very subtle. They demanded that the
Chinese-language subtitles be excised, and they forced the
projectionist to freeze the film before it could reveal the heart of
the tale, leaving the audience confused about the connection between
the documentary and the opera.
"To be honest, as of 2 p.m. on Sunday, we were not sure the show would
go on," said Mr. Zhang.
Given her desire to foster intercultural exchange, Lady Davies, too,
was not eager to criticize the last-minute bureaucratic deus ex
machina. The donkey, after all, was allowed to stay in the production,
even if officials asked that his lascivious behavior be toned down.
"I'm optimistic about the future of the arts in China, although it's
definitely challenging with a capital C," she said with a sigh. "Maybe
next time I ought to do a production of 'Mary Poppins' or 'The Sound
of Music.' "
Zhang Jing contributed research.