Two operas, one in Hong Kong, the other in Moscow, seemed to speak on current themes.
I had the good luck this year of seeing two operas I hadn’t seen before (hit exit button if you don’t like opera). One was in Hong Kong, the other Moscow and each struck a political chord, I thought.
Because old habits die hard, and because, when I was a reporter, I used to watch pop culture for signs of political messages, I wondered whether each might somehow reflect the authoritarian tendencies of the countries where they were put on.
Take “Qu Yuan,” an opera performed by the Xiaobaihua Yue Opera Troupe from Zhejiang province in China. It played as part of the Hong Kong Chinese Opera Festival over the summer and I went to see it mainly because 1) the show was the only one available while I was in Hong Kong and 2) the opera company is composed entirely of women, a reversal of old times when traditionally, casts were all men.
It’s a tale of an upright official and renown poet, Qu Yuan, who tried to save his home region, the State of Chu, from domination by the aggressive State of Qin 1700 years ago. Qu is undermined by palace intrigue of corrupt court rivals, a scheming queen and a slightly dumb king. The combination undermines his efforts to form an alliance against Qin.
While listening to Qu’s elegant arias extolling the virtues of righteousness and unity in government, I couldn’t help but think of Xi Jinping, president of present-day China. Virtue is a key to his self-proclaimed platform for ruling China, with himself declared as the prime example. “He who rules by virtue is like the North Star,” Xi once said, using a quote from the philosopher Confucius. “It maintains its place, and the multitude of stars pay homage.” Fighting corruption has been a signature activity of his reign, though it seems often to target his political enemies.
So is intense patriotism.
And who is Xi’s State of Qin? Well, looks like the West in general and the US in particular. “If our people cannot uphold the moral values that have been formed and developed on our own soil, and instead indiscriminately and blindly parrot Western moral values, then it will be necessary to genuinely question whether we will lose our independent ethos as a country and a people,” he said, remarking on the failure of the Soviet Union to withstand the lure of liberalism in the Gorbachev-Yeltsin years.
I can’t say that the production was explicitly brought to Hong Kong as a paean to Xi, but in an increasingly controlled China under Xi, it certainly could stand in for a short version of his thoughts (which are now ubiquitous in China). Except that, at the opera’s end, Qu Yuan commits suicide, having failed to protect Chu.
Earlier, I was in Moscow and saw a performance of the little-performed Dmitri Shostakovich opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District. This one struck me as possibly—though I can’t say for sure—a slap at the reign of Russia’s president Vladimir Putin.
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District
I had gone to see to try to understand why Josef Stalin, when he attended the opera at the Bolshoi theater in 1936, walked out before it was over. Two days after that performance, Pravda harshly criticized the work:” “Singing is replaced by shrieking,” the article raged. “The music quacks, hoots, growls and gasps to express the love scenes as naturally as possible.” It’s not nice to offend Stalin: The opera wasn’t performed again in Moscow until 1963, with Stalin dead a decade and Nikita Khrushchev in the audience, apparently unperturbed.
Was Stalin upset at the dissonant music and the opera’s heated sexual scenes? Did he somehow see a portrait of himself in the nasty father-in-law? Did the parody of corrupt policemen hit close to home? Or perhaps the sad and haunting chorus of prisoners heading to Siberia suggest oblique criticism of his totalitarian repression?
As for its relevance today, the last two possibilities came to my mind when I was watching. Corrupt cops? A daily occurrence. And while Putin’s not marching off people to Siberia en masse in Stalinist style, he jails dissidents when he sees fit and otherwise finds ways to punish actual and potential rivals.
So, was the performance a sly message to Putin and the public? Worked that way for me.