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Songs of solace

By Chen Nan | China Daily | Updated: 2017-12-16 07:22

The atrocities perpetrated in Nanjing by Japanese forces 80 years ago are now the subject of an opera directed by Elijah Moshinsky. Chen Nan reports

The Diaries of John Rabe, the first original opera produced by the Jiangsu Center for the Performing Arts premiered in Nanjing on Dec 13, the memorial day commemorating the 80th anniversary of the Nanjing Massacre.

On Dec 13, 1937, the Japanese army occupied the city of Nanjing, the provincial capital of Jiangsu and the then capital of China, during the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1931-45). For the next six weeks, more than 300,000 Chinese people were indiscriminately killed by Japanese troops.

 Songs of solace

The Diaries of John Rabe, the first opera produced by the Jiangsu Center for the Performing Arts, made its debut on Dec 13, to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Nanjing Massacre. Provided to China Daily


The atrocities were captured in the wartime diaries of John Rabe (1882-1950), a German businessman credited with saving thousands of lives during the massacre, and an individual likened to Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who saved hundreds of Jews from death in Poland in World War II.

The opera has been running for three continuous nights at the venue, which opened its doors this August. Under the baton of Lyu Jia, the Macao Orchestra performed the opera, which was written by scriptwriter Zhou Ke and composed by Tang Jianping.

"This is the most significant production I've ever undertaken. It's my responsibility to ensure it not only goes well, but goes extraordinarily well, to show people the significance of this event in history," says Australian director Elijah Moshinsky about the opera.

Born in Shanghai in 1946 and moved to Melbourne with his parents in 1952, Moshinsky, who graduated from St Anthony's College, Oxford with a doctorate degree in history and philosophy, has enjoyed prolific career spanning over 40 years as a director of both opera and theater.

The director says he has read Rabe's diaries at least five times, which document the Japanese atrocities committed during the assault and occupation of Nanjing. He also visited the former residence of Rabe in Nanjing and Ginling Women's College, which both served as a shelter for refugees at that time, to learn more about the history.

"At first, I found the diaries boring. Then I read them again. I realized that Rabe was a man who knew the right thing to do. He was from a totally different culture but what motivated him to stay was only a desire to help the Chinese people," the director says. The creative team behind the opera also sees the director's longtime friend and lighting designer Nigel Levings, who won a Tony Award in 2003.

According to the director, he has been holding in-depth discussions with the creative team since September 2016. The Chinese team, including the composer Tang and conductor Lyu, visited him in London and they "spoke every day for several months, for over three hours a day".

"We are dealing with a man's diaries. During our long discussions, we agreed that we cannot make an opera about a diary, but we can about the story. What was happening in Nanjing at that time? What were the Japanese intending to do? The theme of the opera is about compassion. We give a voice to the suffering of the Chinese people, not just about Rabe," the director says.

In the production, the stage is framed by Nanjing's city walls, which helps to create a focus for the performance, and adds human scale. "The walls are also symbol of the city, which bore witness to history," he adds. Other landmark buildings such as thepost office are also represented in the set design, to remind audiences of Nanjing during that era.

"I feel honored to have composed this opera since this subject is so important to Chinese people. Unlike many of the operas I've worked on before, this opera has been quite challenging and I spent a year working on it. As well as the suffering and anger of the Chinese people, I wanted to express a longing for peace and love through the music," says Tang, who is the director of the composition department at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. The theme music for the opera was based on Johann Sebastian Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, which is combined with elements of folk music from Jiangsu. To open and close the opera, Tang wrote solo violin pieces to indicate the initial misery and the prospect of a brighter future.

"The sound of the violin is like streaming rivers running through history," says Tang. "Personally, this opera means a lot to me as a musician. Art can bring people together and it can also reflect history. Those people who continue to denying history, including the Nanjing Massacre, they are worse than beasts."

Apart from Rabe, played by Chinese tenors Xue Haoyin and Han Peng, other Westerners who stayed in Nanjing to shelter Chinese civilians by setting up an international safety zone, have been portrayed in the opera. American missionary Minnie Vautrin is played by Chinese soprano Xu Xiaoying and American priest John Magee by Chinese bass-baritone Li Shi.

"I maintain my career on a freelance basis. That means every production I work on has to be good enough so that the opera house asks me back to do it again. Throughout my career, I have maintained my interest in theater without seeking fame or trying make a big noise about it. I only direct productions that I feel morally connected with. This is an opera I am excited about," says Moshinsky, who has directed more than 20 opera productions with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the Royal Opera House in London and the Sydney Opera House.

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