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Comic opera reels in crowds in Guangzhou

China Daily | Updated: 2023-05-31 09:18
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GUANGZHOU — A theater bar in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, was packed with opera lovers during a recent staging of a comedy about two men fighting over a woman.

Rita, a comic opera in one act composed by 19th century Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti, tells the story of a bar owner named Rita who mistakenly believes that her first husband, Gasparo, has died in an accident and decides to embrace a new life with her second husband, Beppe. When Gasparo returns out of the blue, he enters into a battle with Beppe over his wife, resulting in a spectacular farce.

The version presented in Guangzhou was specially adapted for the city by director Peter Gordon and his partner, Italian composer Marco Iannelli.

Gordon began working in Hong Kong in 1985 and has become increasingly involved in cultural projects related to literature, theater and opera since 2000.

"Opera in Hong Kong has traditionally focused on 'grand opera'-large and quite expensive productions. These are very nice, but the number of productions that can be put on each year is quite limited," Gordon said.

"I felt that it should be possible to produce smaller operas in a cost-effective way, allowing for an entirely new set of productions, while not sacrificing the quality of singing or music."

To that end, he began producing operas on a chamber-music scale a few years ago with Iannelli, an award-winning composer who also lives in Hong Kong. Rita is one of their joint projects.

In 2022, with the introduction of Hong Kong tenor Chen Yong, Gordon and Iannelli produced a new version of Rita for a Guangzhou audience and recruited talent from the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area to perform and produce the opera.

"Guangzhou is of course a bit different from Hong Kong, and the Guangzhou Opera House wanted to localize the story within the opera house itself, to set it in its own bar — which we thought a very good idea," Gordon said. "In addition, they wanted to expand on an idea we had used in an earlier Hong Kong production of integrating the audience into the performance. What we also wanted to do was to integrate the orchestra into the performance in this staging, as if they were actually playing in the bar."

The Guangzhou cast is composed of college students, whose voices are young and fresh. Xing Xinyuan, who plays Rita, is a sophomore at the Xinghai Conservatory of Music's Vocal and Opera Department. She is the youngest actor in the show, and Rita is her first lead role in a staged performance.

The Italian dialogue, coordinating with the band, interacting closely with the audience, and the novel form of performance all posed her challenges. "We rehearsed the play for less than six months before staging it, which is unprecedentedly fast, and I've learned a lot."

Less than a year after its debut last July, the 70-minute opera is a hit, with tickets selling out as soon as they are released. Opera is generally regarded as an art form with a relatively high appreciation threshold, but Rita has brought more young people into the theater.

"We were all very happy to see so many young people in the audience — and having a good time, too," Gordon said.

Gordon has full confidence in the Chinese market. "What I do know is that China has both an increasing number of modern theaters, as well as ever-increasing numbers of good, young opera singers," he said.


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