Chinese 'Peony' production won't bloom in U.S.
China government deems opera too risque
Web posted on: Thursday, June 25, 1998 3:58:48 PM
NEW YORK (CNN) -- A Shanghai opera troupe will not be allowed to visit New York's Lincoln Center to perform a 400-year-old opera after China's Bureau of Culture on Wednesday denounced the performance as feudal, superstitious and pornographic.
The production of "The Peony Pavilion" had been scheduled to leave China on Thursday; scheduled to open July 7, it had been billed as the centerpiece of this year's Lincoln Center summer program, Festival 98. But Chinese officials informed the Shanghai Kunqu Opera Company that its shipment of costumes, props and musical instruments would not be allowed to leave the country.
"The Shanghai Bureau of Culture has insisted that the production be uncrated and that the actors rehearse the entire 20-hour opera so that the Chinese officials could have the opportunity to make and review the revisions they deemed appropriate," a statement from the Lincoln Center said.
The loss is a blow to Lincoln Center, which spent $500,000 in preparation for the opera. The center said the demand by Chinese officials makes it impossible for the opera to be performed, and canceled the engagement.
"Half a million dollars is a lot of money. More important is the artistic product," center president Nathan Leventhal said. "It would have been a great joy for thousands of people in this country who would have seen it."
The development came as President Clinton began a state visit to China, which includes a three-day visit to Shanghai. Clinton's visit had been explicitly designed to emphasize the positive aspects of Sino-American cooperation. Now, there is a real possibility that the visit could highlight an ugly controversy over censorship and artistic freedom.
"By trying to control a performance in New York, they (the Chinese government) are somehow tarnishing their image, rather than enhancing it," said China analyst Norman Givant.
A love story
Written by Tang Xianxu in 1598, "The Peony Pavilion" is considered a masterpiece of Kunqu opera, one of China's oldest and most sophisticated operatic styles.
The 20-hour-long opera was scheduled to be performed over six evenings and a weekend.
It tells the story of a young woman who dies longing for ideal love. Her ghost finds the man of her dreams. She is brought back to life and they marry. Reports say there is one scene of lovemaking, behind a screen, and no nudity on stage.
Problems with the interpretation
The performance originally met Chinese resistance last week when six tons of elaborate sets, props and costumes were blocked from being shipped from Shanghai Airport.
The Shanghai Bureau of Culture apparently had problems with how the production would be interpreted by Chen Shizheng, the opera's director, who was born in China but lives in the United States. He has sought to enliven the traditional opera by highlighting its subtle eroticism.
Nigel Redden, newly named head of the Lincoln Center Festival 98, and Chen, who has been rehearsing members of the Kunqu Opera Company for nearly two years, went to China to try to resolve differences, but to no avail.
Despite the many changes in China, hardline ideologues are still influential, especially in the Ministry of Culture. Clamping down on a Chinese opera with international connections may be the cultural comissars' way of reasserting their authority, however embarrassing the timing.
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