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 dealt with elements of current politics, I thought.
Because old habits die hard, and because, when I was a reporter, I used to look to pop culture for signs of political messages, I wondered whether each might somehow reflect the authoritarian tendencies of China and Russia.
Take “Qu Yuan,” an opera performed by the Xiaobaihua Yue Opera Troupe from China’s Zhejiang province. It was part of Hong Kong’s summer Chinese Opera Festival. I went to see it mainly because 1) the show was the only one playing while I was in Hong Kong and 2) the opera company is composed entirely of women, a reversal of old times, when traditionally, only men sang opera, even in women’s roles.
The opera is 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. Corrupt court rivals, a scheming queen and a slightly dumb king all undermine his efforts, which included trying to recruit other kingdoms to fight Qin.
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 for life of present-day China. Xi also celebrates virtue, with himself declared as the prime example of right-thinking government. “He who rules by virtue is like the North Star,” he once said, quoting the ancient 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 mainly to target his political enemies.
Intense patriotism and defense against outside enemies are also guiding stars of Xi’s reign. 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 has said, in remarks on the failure of the Soviet Union to withstand the lure of liberalism during 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 theatrical depiction of his thinking–except that, at the opera’s end, Qu Yuan commits suicide, having failed to protect the kingdom of Chu. I don’t think Xi has that in mind.
Earlier this year, I was in Moscow and saw a performance at at the Helikon Theater of the little-performed Dmitri Shostakovich opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District. This one struck me as possibly a slap at the reign of Russia’s president Vladimir Putin.
Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk District
I had gone out of curiosity about why Josef Stalin, when he attended the opera in 1936 at the Bolshoi theater, walked out in disgust before it was over. Two days after the performance, Pravda harshly criticized the work: “Singing is replaced by shrieking,” the critique raged. “The music quacks, hoots, growls and gasps to express the love scenes as naturally as possible.” It wasn’t not nice to offend Stalin. The opera wasn’t performed again in Moscow until 1963, with Stalin already dead a decade and Nikita Khrushchev ruling the USSR and sitting in the audience, apparently unperturbed.
Was Stalin upset at the dissonant music and the opera’s heated sex 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 being marched to Siberia suggested oblique criticism of his totalitarian repression.
As for its relevance today, the last two possibilities came to my mind. Corrupt cops? A common phenomenon. And while Putin’s not sending people off to Siberia en masse, he jails dissidents when he sees fit and otherwise finds ways to punish actual and potential rivals.
As a sly depiction of Putin’s tendencies, Shostakovich’s opera worked for me.