The Great Leap to Valhalla: Wagner in China

Melissa Chan writes about the performance of Wagner operas in China.

The Great Leap to Valhalla: Wagner in China

THE 1999 LINCOLN CENTER FESTIVAL production of The Peony Pavilion, a 16th-century Chinese opera in 55 acts, was such a cultural event that it swayed Mark Swed, the classical music critic of the Los Angeles Times, to take the transcontinental trip east to attend the performance. In his review, he dropped the adjective “long” no less than three times in the first paragraph alone. He wasn’t wrong. Never performed in full, even in China, the 1999 US production unfurled over three days and totaled some 20 hours. Wagnerian in length, the story is also Wagnerian in scope, touching on themes of love, death, and transcendence.

The director, China-born and New York–based Chen Shi-Zheng, had never worked on anything so massive. Had he staged a Wagner opera, Chen might have drawn from that experience to inform his Peony, given the parallels in challenges, content, and scale. In fact, the situation is reversed: 20 years after Chen produced Peony, he is set to direct Opera Australia’s new production of The Ring, which the press office markets as “the world’s first digital production” of the cycle, including more than 40 large LED screens enveloping the stage in a light extravaganza. Wagner fans skeptical of such flashiness have some merit for pause—Chen also once directed the Chinese-language remake (2010) of the Disney Channel film High School Musical (2006), which has a Rotten Tomatoes audience rating of 50 percent and is absolutely cringe.

At least Chen can hardly be accused of lacking versatility or vision. With Peony, he sought to revitalize a dying Chinese art form, defying conventions that demanded fidelity to performance history, pushing to update everything from the performers’ theatrical gestures to their costumes. His attempt ruffled the Chinese government’s feathers so much that the Shanghai culture police stopped the show—which required the cooperation of visiting Chinese singers—before intense negotiations allowed the New York production to move forward one year later. The incident left all parties wary; Chen did not work in China for many years thereafter.

In China, art is never free of authoritarian state politics. With Peony, officials fretted over how a Chinese art form would present externally. They would also not have missed the uncomfortable fact that it took a Western production to show the opera in full when there is no record of a complete performance ever having taken place in China. For a Chinese Communist Party boastful of its stewardship of Chinese culture, the Lincoln Center Festival’s Peony became a double-edged sword: it promoted Chinese culture on the global stage while serving as a reproach of the CCP’s nationalist credentials.

The same type of cultural fretting can happen inversely. The explosive economic growth in China over the past few decades and the emergence of a sophisticated urban class have driven demand for top-tier entertainment. Opera is considered fancy and prestigious. If China has become modern and powerful, its cultural venues and shows must match the world’s best. The nation’s top political body commissioned the construction of Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts, finished in 2007, designed by French architect Paul Andreu, and built at a cost of $360 million. In the south, officials constructed one of the most visually stunning new opera houses in the world in 2010—the $202 million Guangzhou Opera House, designed by Zaha Hadid—erected even before the city had a resident opera company. If you build it, they will come: cultural infrastructure led the way, with performance culture an afterthought. Eventually, the Guangzhou venue opened with Turandot.

Chinese audiences took to Italian operas earliest and easiest, and organizers might have partially had that in mind with Turandot. In the current era, this preference was helped along by the Three Tenors and their Forbidden City concert in 2001, a nationally televised event. Luciano Pavarotti had visited China before; in 1986, he toured the country, giving a major concert in Beijing and leading a master class where he remarked on the high quality of the students at the conservatory.

Interest in Wagner required a little more time. While Italian opera goes as far back as China’s dynastic era, with contemporary newspapers announcing shows in Shanghai in the 1870s and 1880s, there is scant information about Wagner until the 1980s, when the country began opening up. Chinese familiarity with the kaleidoscopic Peony, given the abridged nature of those performances, helped little to translate a journey like The Ring. Mao Zedong’s devastating Cultural Revolution (1966–76) banned much Western art and music, including Wagner, though that interregnum—often viewed as culturally barren—oddly preserved one of Wagner’s features, even if most Chinese were not aware of it: the leitmotif. Propaganda operas and ballets—themselves unavoidably grounded in the Western symphonic tradition even as the CCP denounced foreign culture—assigned theme music to present heroes and villains in their stories of Communist revolutionaries battling class enemies. The Red Guards might have banished the pantheon of European classical musicians, but it did not keep them from fashioning their messages from the Western tradition.

In 1987, Hans Mayer’s biography of Wagner was translated into Chinese. Two years later, the composer received his first entry in a Chinese encyclopedia, with the writer dutifully noting that, while “Marx and Engels [had] criticized Wagner’s ideology,” the composer’s “worldview and creative ideology had many contradictions, as a result of which later generations were not united in their appraisal of him. However, his contribution to the development of European music and art is undeniable.” Nationalist and antisemitic aspects of Wagner’s biography were largely and deliberately ignored—Chinese Wagnerites understood that dwelling on controversy invited scrutiny; it was safer to simply extol Wagner as a pinnacle of Western civilization and leave it at that.

Wagner’s librettos were published in a two-volume set a decade later, at around the time of the first full performance of a Wagner opera in China—The Flying Dutchman in 1999, with the Deutsche Oper am Rhein and David Walsh’s production. The conductor, Tang Muhai, who had spent most of his working career in Europe and Australia, felt it to be the best choice for audience accessibility because, of all Wagner’s mature works, it most closely resembled the Italian style. In 2001, the China Philharmonic Orchestra played Act I of Die Walküre, with a cast including Cheryl Studer. In 2005, Nuremberg State Theater performed a concert version of The Ring.

It took until 2010 before a fully staged version of the cycle was performed in China. That honor goes to Cologne Opera and its Robert Carsen production brought to the Shanghai World Expo, with Markus Stenz conducting. The Cologne municipal government footed the bill, transferring the cast, crew, musicians, and 30 containers of stage scenery and props to Asia at a cost of almost $4 million in a bid to convert Chinese music lovers into Wagnerites. State media outlet the Global Times explained to local readers that this was no musical fare like Phantom of the Opera or Les Misérables, shows ordinarily staged at the Shanghai Grand Theatre—it would overshadow all previous productions held. If organizers were concerned about a neophyte audience, they need not have been. Enough of a discerning fan base showed up and reacted with boos to Stig Anderson as Siegfried, who “by all accounts was not in good voice,” according to arts and culture reporter Ken Smith. A replacement was brought in for the second cycle. Most of the hall might have been baffled by the heckling, but it was clear that, among some of the more than one billion people in the country, Wagner had taken hold. If Marx and Engels had once disapproved of Wagner, The Ring, as a parable of the perils of capitalism and the miserable pursuit of private wealth, now fit safely into the official Chinese political paradigm.

An ambitious China would naturally wish to launch an indigenous production of The Ring. With no prior history of regular Wagner performances, however, most of the country’s singers simply did not have the dramatic voice training needed to meet the specific demands. For the first ever Chinese production of the cycle in 2015, China National Opera ended up hiring several foreigners for the roles, though the majority of the performers were Chinese.

Alfred Chan, a professor of Chinese history and politics and a Wagnerite, complimented the production as “decent” and a “valiant” effort, adding that he doubted “if the Germans could, or [would] ever want to mount” The Peony Pavilion in the same way. Commenting on Twilight of the Gods from the same production, Ken Smith, writing for the Financial Times, felt that the cycle “mined Wagner’s score for every musical nuance, occasionally to the detriment of the drama. Still, the performance mostly held up.”

Nowadays, Wagner has finally gained momentum, becoming a regular part of the repertory at the nation’s top music halls, often via co-productions with overseas companies. Chinese singers who tackle Wagner still predominantly perform domestically, however, and few have yet broken into the European or American circuits.

Visiting opera companies continue to receive warm welcomes. Chinese audiences have enjoyed Lohengrin, Tannhaüser, and Tristan und Isolde. More recently, in 2019, right before the world shut down due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, Valery Gergiev brought Parsifal to China, as part of the Mariinsky Theatre Festival, performing a concert version in Beijing and a full-stage version in Nanjing. Given the Russian conductor’s persona non grata status in most of Europe these days, the friend of Putin may well cast his eyes east for future visits to China. There, he is loved, with Chinese state media gushing that Gergiev is like a “brother-in-law.” Given Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin’s announcement of their “no limits” Sino-Russian partnership on the eve of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, the cultural messaging aligns well with the CCP’s geopolitical one. What this will spell for world peace is anyone’s guess, but we can certainly expect more operatic co-productions between the two countries in the future.

The context in which these present performances are taking place is awkward. Officially, Xi has warned that Western culture threatens to subvert the CCP’s control of the country. In what is known as “Document Number Nine,” a key text circulated to Party members, he targeted democracy, civil society, journalism, and a host of other institutions as “malicious.” The preamble to the document is preoccupied with the fear of cultural penetration—that is, Westernization. Most government action so far has focused on mainstream popular culture: the banning of foreign television shows or revisions to overseas books published in the China market. Western classical music has largely evaded attention; Xi may be susceptible to the common bias regarding opera as genteel high culture. Nonetheless, over his decade in power, Xi’s hostility to foreign influence and his increasing neo-nationalist agenda mean that even those in the music world have developed a mindfulness over how to talk about and produce Western classical music.

In China, Party members hold positions at every concert venue and conservatory. Genuflection to Xi is a must. That is why the head of the Shanghai Conservatory, a member of the CCP, would launch a course entitled “Teaching the Builders and Successors of Socialism: Developing a World-Class Conservatory That Is Also Very Chinese” in order to demonstrate the institution’s commitment to what Xi has labeled the “Chinese Dream.” Much like “Make America Great Again,” it is an ideology based on aggrieved nationalism, demanding that culture act in the service of promoting national pride. Conservatory students in this environment have little option but to eagerly take such courses if they wish for career advancement. Eventually, they also face pressure to join the Communist Party.

The irony is that much of this musical culture in service to a greater China involves European classical music performance. Despite Xi’s rhetoric in favor of Chinese rejuvenation and against Westernization, this is still a world in which The Peony Pavilion was first performed in full overseas, and in which, domestically, traditional Chinese opera wanes while European classical music gains in popularity. Contemporary Chinese likely know as much about European opera as they do Chinese opera, if not more. Despite the treacherous political waters, a few more decades on this trajectory might earn China a chapter entry in an updated edition of Wagnerism (2020), Alex Ross’s splendid tome on Wagner, politics, and culture.


This piece was originally published in Almanach 2023, yearbook of the Gesellschaft der Freunde von Bayreuth (Friends of the Bayreuth Richard Wagner Festival), and is printed with permission.


Melissa Chan is an Emmy-nominated journalist based between Los Angeles and Berlin. Her debut graphic novel, You Must Take Part in Revolution, co-authored with activist artist Badiucao, is set for release in 2024.

LARB Contributor

Melissa Chan is an Emmy-nominated journalist based between Los Angeles and Berlin. Her debut graphic novel, You Must Take Part in Revolution, co-authored with activist artist Badiucao, is set for release in 2024. She has written for The New York Times, where she was nominated for a Loeb Award—business journalism’s highest honor—and for The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Time, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, and more. With Al Jazeera English, she served as a broadcast correspondent in China before her expulsion from the country for the channel’s reports. Her work there was recognized with two Human Rights Press Awards from Amnesty International and a citation from the Overseas Press Club.


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