Opera buff who marries Mozart to modern China
At university, David Li Wei, 42, studied accounting and finance, but it wasn't a path he saw himself following. After graduation, he steered clear of the finance, opting instead to take various jobs, such as a security guard. Then, in 1999, he decided to pursue a career as an artist, setting his sights on opera. As a director and producer, he established his own opera house in 2007, and he often travels to Rome and Paris for performances. He wants to make comic operas popular on the mainland by tailoring the content to local tastes and limiting ticket prices to less than 300 yuan (HK$370).
Which operas have you chosen to adapt?
So far we have chosen only well-recognised comedies for our audiences. We have localised about 10 since 2007. They include The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart; The Merry Widow by Franz Lehar; Cinderella; and La Boheme by Puccini.
What changes do you make?
The story is written in Chinese, and the actors speak in Chinese, but they still sing the songs in their original language because our language does not fit the melody and the musical style. We add some localised content to the story. For example, we talked about the Asian Games when staging The Merry Widow in Guangzhou last year, and we even added a line that says people go to Dongguan for prostitution. In The Marriage of Figaro, our actors spoke in a northeastern dialect and Shanghainese for the characters who like to stir up trouble between people and who are tough. I believe this allows our audiences to feel connected to the story and appreciate the play. However, of course, the structure and the theme of the original story are not changed. The Marriage of Figaro still focuses on the polarisation between the rich and the poor, and the dark side of those in power.
Why do you want to localise the operas?
I don't think operas should be products that are too high-brow to be popular. Many regular people nowadays feel they can't relate to musical productions and they don't bother to take a look at them. Opera has become something like a cult, and some production houses are losing money. It is a big pity. So I decided to produce something the audiences would be familiar with and able to appreciate. We chose comic operas because they have a huge market. Audiences love listening to funny stuff and then go home feeling relaxed. The main aim of operas is to entertain the public, and once people embrace comic operas, they will try appreciating other operas.
How long does it take to prepare a show?
It doesn't take long because we are on a tight budget. Usually it just takes me a few days to write the storyline, and then there's about a week for rehearsal. It is not that difficult to write the story if you have a good understanding of what's going on in China.
What difficulties did you encounter while setting up your own opera house?
I have been rejected by some people in the arts community. I invited some art professors for The Marriage of Figaro, but some of them left halfway through the show and said to me, 'You can focus on your own business, but we have our own ways of making music.' But my target audience is ordinary people who do not know much about musicals, and I am happy as long as they are interested in my work.
You studied accounting and finance at university. Why did you pursue a career in the arts?
I have loved listening to opera ever since my childhood. But I studied accounting, and I had never thought about working in the arts. I took many jobs after graduation, such as a translator. It was in 1999 that I started working for an art group. I was involved in stage design and lighting, and I really indulged in it. I went to France two years later as an intern for an opera house, and I decided to focus on production when I returned to China. I don't think there was any turning point or particular incident that pushed me to focus on art; I do it just because I love it.
Are you at a disadvantage in the world of the arts because you were not professionally trained?
No, because my job as a director and producer involves creativity more than skill. I can perform my job well so long as I am able to think and be creative. However, having said that, I needed to work much harder when I was transitioning from an amateur to a professional, spending extra hours on rehearsals each day. I sometimes told members of my team to give up their family lives for art, and that such sacrifice was worth it.
Have you had any financial difficulties in operating your production house?
I spent about 200,000 yuan to set up my production house in 2007. Our budget is very tight. We sometimes just rent a very old apartment as our rehearsal venue, and neighbours constantly complain about us being too noisy. We use just simple props, which can by reused. We are not a big government-run opera house with huge amounts of money to spend. We were also deceived once by our partner who violated his contract.
Does your educational background in finance help you much?
It does help me control my budget and ensure that the money is spent efficiently. It sometimes also helps me detect deceptions earlier. And I think I know more about how to promote my production to a wider community. I organised a collective wedding event to promote The Marriage of Figaro. I think this combines business and arts. I don't mind having some commercial elements in my work, and I think that makes my work better understood by the public and enhances the quality of the production.
What was your most impressive production experience?
That would be The Merry Widow in Guangzhou last year. The audience gave us a big applause. The curtain call lasted almost half an hour. It meant they loved the show.
What does the future look like for private opera production houses?
I think it will be positive, because the government has already said it will support the growth of private production houses.