A rhapsody too blue for officials seeing red
After all the controversy over its cancellation in Beijing, the three-act opera Dr Sun Yat-sen opened and closed in Hong Kong last week without a hitch. While reviews of its music and stage design were mixed, there was no snag in the production that gave a clue to the 'logistical reasons' cited by its producer, Opera Hong Kong, that scuppered its Beijing premiere. Speculation is rife that the real reasons for its last-minute cancellation were political.
On this score, there was silence from both the local and the would-be Beijing presenters of the show. So, was politics at play? The attendance of senior government officials from the Home Affairs and Mainland and Constitutional Affairs bureaus suggested the opera was politically acceptable. After all, Secretary for Home Affairs Tsang Tak-sing hailed the 1911 revolution and Sun's patriotism in a preconcert speech. What, then, led authorities to risk China's image by calling off an opera it had previously endorsed to be staged at the showpiece National Centre for the Performing Arts?
My guess is the dates of the scheduled performances in Beijing: September 30 to October 3. These were booked before the centre decided to launch 'National Day Music Week' for the 62nd anniversary of the People's Republic, starting on October 1, the National Day. Performances of Chinese works featured that week were either Maoist songs or traditional plays. There were, for example, the Red Classics (music set to Mao Zedong's poems) and a piano recital featuring works of the Cultural Revolution, including The Red Lantern. Given such a 'red' context, this 'blue' opera eulogising the 1911 nationalist revolution was incompatible with the official theme, much less a work to be staged at the national venue on National Day.
The opera's content and lyrics, along with the scheduled dates, had already got the green light before it went into the centre's autumn season brochure. The last-minute change of mind probably took place in late August. The substitute opera, Chinese Orphan, employed the same cast and production team. But it was no longer an event to honour the centenary of the 1911 revolution, as Dr Sun Yat-sen was billed to be.
No one knows better about the opera than its producer Warren Mok, who handpicked New York-based composer Huang Ruo and librettist Candace Chong for the project four years ago. The former Berlin Opera tenor would have spotted any artistic concerns a long time before the premiere.
Blaming the music, such as difficulty in rendering the vocal line, as some did, was a convenient but not convincing excuse. To accord justice to all parties, the reasons for the dreadful treatment of this Hong Kong production should be made known.
Oliver Chou is a senior writer at the Post