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The Sunday Opera: "The Ballad of the Canal" from Beijing's National Centre for the Performing Arts

It’s another of the offerings from Beijing’s National Center for the Performing Arts on this week’s Sunday Opera (9/27 3:00 p.m.) for the first Chinese opera written in the western opera idiom in a spectacular combination of musical forms from lush orchestrations to bel canto singing to singspiel to traditional Chinese folk melodies, all performed by a cast of Chinese singers utilizing the techniques found in traditional Chinese Opera. The result is fascinating.

The story takes place around the Beijing – Hangzhou or Grand Canal, the longest canal in the world which was built over 2,500 years ago.

During the Ming Dynasty, scholar Qin Xiaosheng is captured by the police for exposing the corruption of officials in Hangzhou. The folk singer Shui Honglian, who is resisting being turned into a concubine, also flees to the banks of the canal. The two meet up at the ceremony for the Dragon King of the river, on the day of a song and dance tournament. They pose as performers on the dragon boat and escape. Qin disguises himself as a sailor using Li Xiaoguan's abandoned uniform, and they board the boat of Zhang Shuiyao, heading north along the canal to their hopeful exile.

They fall in love, but the ship owner Zhang is obsessed with Shui. Along their travels, the ship encounters Guan Yanyan who became pregnant by Li Xiaoquan before he abandoned her. After giving birth, Guan cried so much that she went blind. Zhang, who knows that Qin is not the sailor, convinces him to take Guan as his wife or be turned in to be arrested. Qin has no choice because he’ll either be arrested or Quan will commit suicide. The scene ends with Qin and Shui sharing the grief of their situations.

Zhang decides to inform the police about Qin, and Shui asks Qin to escape with Guan while she stays behind to stall for time so that they can get away. Zhang captures Shui to try to make Qin return, but Shui kicks over a lamp and burns the boat, killing herself.

Qin wants to follow Shui in death, but Guan asks him to finish his uncompleted denouncement of the governmental corruption in Shui’s name. Moved, Qin and Guan arrive in Beijing and denounce the corruption of the officials to the Emperor.

Shui's love and act of selflessness inspires Qin and Guan to find love and happiness together.

Yin Qing’s “The Ballad of the Canal” features Lei Jia as Shui, Wang Hongwei as Qin, Wang Li as Guan, and Sun Li as Zhang. They’re joined by the NCPA Orchestra and Chorus, and the conductor is Lu Jia.

After the opera, join Michael Kownacky for two “western” pieces that were inspired by works from China and Japan.

The first is Gustav Mahler’s moving “Das Lied von der Erde” which features soloists Birgit Finnila and Peter Schrier who are joined by the Berlin Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kurt Sanderling. The piece is based on seven poems from China’s Tang Dynasty that were part of a compilation by Hans Bethge. It was written at a time of great upheaval in Mahler’s life.

The second piece come from the pen of American composer Alan Hovhaness. His Fantasy on Japanese Woodprints was born from his love of the music, arts, and culture of Japan and comprises his response to the three woodprints of the title with Hovhaness’ original music based on the Japanese idiom.

Michael is program host and host of the WWFM Sunday Opera, Sundays at 3 pm, and co-host of The Dress Circle, Sundays at 7 pm.
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