A traditional Chinese tale crosses borders

'Madame White Snake' goes from Boston to Beijing

Opera Boston’s co-commissioned work got its Eastern premiere at the Beijing Music Festival last month. Opera Boston’s co-commissioned work got its Eastern premiere at the Beijing Music Festival last month. (Liang Yan)
By Nick Frisch
Globe Correspondent / November 7, 2010

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BEIJING — Boy meets girl, girl is actually snake demon in human form, powerful monk decides to break up boy and girl, girl is restored to raging serpent shape. It’s a tale as old as time itself — at least in China, where the Legend of White Snake is as familiar as Noah’s Ark or Sherlock Holmes in the West. And White Snake was a major music story in the West last February when Opera Boston gave the world premiere of “Madame White Snake,’’ by Chinese composer Zhou Long and librettist Cerise Lim Jacobs of Brookline.

On Oct. 27, Chinese opera-goers had their chance to see “Madame White Snake,’’ at the work’s Eastern premiere in the Beijing Music Festival, which co-commissioned the opera with Opera Boston.

To get a sense of the Chinese audience’s experience, imagine an inverted East-West Sherlock Holmes production, with Holmes’s adventures set in Peking Opera-style by a Western composer living in China: Holmes would sing in piercing falsetto Mandarin through face-paint while the Sinicized libretto would be rendered in English subtitles: “Obviously, my friend Watson!’’ Now and then, violins might rise above gongs and flutes.

Granted, that scenario undersells the enormous popularity of Western classical music in China. The country’s powerful political patrons are also fans, and many tickets are distributed through corporate, government, and Communist Party channels.

But “Madame White Snake’’ cannot be evaluated like a “Traviata’’ or even a “Turandot’’ would be here. It’s far too familiar. Each of China’s dozens of regional opera styles has a version of White Snake, plus television dramas, cartoons, and children’s books.

On this Wednesday night the Chinese public took it mostly in stride. On the one hand, audience members were clearly thrilled to see a Chinese tale given the full operatic treatment. On the other, there was no denying the cognitive dissonance in the minds of audience members more used to conventional German-Italian fare.

“Oh, I love all kinds of opera — Peking opera, Sichuan opera, Western opera,’’ enthused a long-time aficionado from a balcony seat that, she proudly noted, she had purchased herself. (On a white-collar salary, such tickets are often comparatively more expensive than in the West.) “The music is very modern, very Western . . . but I think it’s a good thing for a Chinese story to be told this way.’’

“One other thing,’’ chimed in her friend. “These Chinese subtitles — the language in them isn’t very beautiful.’’ White Snake’s tale is typically told in classically inflected Chinese.

Rehearsing in the pit a few days before, China Philharmonic Orchestra member Mao Xinguang spoke of his heterodox music education. “I studied Chinese instruments as well, and my wife still plays the guzheng,’’ he said, referring to a plucked zither. “Many of us in the orchestra here have also studied Chinese instruments, and of course we know Chinese music well. I don’t know how the orchestra in Boston played this score with its Chinese musical influences, but I think we can probably play it better.’’ (Indeed, the China Philharmonic was excellent, “Better than Boston!’’ remarked one of the principal singers, all of whom traveled to Beijing for the China premiere.)

A dresser in the costumes department took issue with what she knows best. “The costumes are all wrong, and I find it distracting,’’ she said. “Madam White Snake is showing too much cleavage! This story is set in feudal times, so she wouldn’t have dressed like that. And why is she wearing red [a happy hue compared to white’s mournfulness] when it’s not the wedding scene?’’ What about the starkly modern set, contemporary score, Occidental narrative structure, and English libretto? “Oh, all that’s fine. You know, I’m quite open-minded, we do all kinds of operas here at the Century Theater. We did ‘Turandot,’ no problem. But . . . the monk! Why isn’t his head shaved!?’’

“Charlie’’ Yan Qilong, a driver and avid Peking Opera fan who specializes in shuttling musical dignitaries between Beijing’s conservatories and concert halls, was blunt. “This just didn’t draw me in. The plot departs too far from the original story. This tale is part of Chinese people’s renxin [collective emotions]. They have such a clear idea of it in their mind’s eye.’’ Come now, surely he was being too close-minded? “Western music and Chinese music, and those two cultures, can occupy the stage with no problem at all! I’ve seen many fine performances. But in this case, the Chinese aspects were mostly used as embellishments. In some places it even seemed a little bit funny, ridiculous.’’

The finale finds a pregnant White Snake tricked by her mortal lover into drinking the abbot’s potion, wailing and raging as she resumes her serpentine form. As the dénouement melted into hearty applause, several young viewers in the balcony discussed the work’s compositional merits. Undergraduates in the Composition Department of Beijing’s Central Conservatory of Music, they hesitated to critique the music of a famous Conservatory alumnus. “I would just say, this,’’ explained a young fan. “It was great to watch, and a great experience. But you know, the treatment of emotions like love is different in Chinese arts. This was an exciting version White Snake, but to have an emotional impact, ultimately it is a version better suited to a Western audience.’’

Nick Frisch, a 2009-2010 Fulbright Fellow researching music in China, can be reached at

MADAME WHITE SNAKE At: the Beijing Music Festival, Oct. 27