Source: Sinosphere (11/10/15)
‘White-Haired Girl,’ Opera Created Under Mao, Returns to Stage
By CHRIS BUCKLEY
Mao Zedong was said to have been moved to tears when he watched an early performance of “The White-Haired Girl,” an opera created to meet his call for rousing revolutionary art. And under President Xi Jinping, a revival is on the road, reinvented once more to appeal to a Communist Party leader’s stringently ideological tastes.
The opera was first performed in 1945 in Yan’an, the Communists’ revolutionary base in northwestern China, inspired by Mao’sprecepts for revolutionary art and literature delivered at a landmark forum in 1942. The Ministry of Culture said it had revived the story in response to Mr. Xi’s own landmark speech last year on the role of the arts in China, when he demanded politically wholesome art cleansed of decadence.
The revival had its premiere in Yan’an on Friday, and performances are planned in nine additional Chinese cities, culminating in Beijing in mid-December, the Ministry of Culture said in an emailed statement.
“The leadership undoubtedly sees it as a classic of the Yan’an repertoire, to remind people of the glories of the Yan’an days,” said Paul Clark, a professor at the University of Auckland in New Zealand who has studied Chinese film and culture from the Mao era.
The story had “a symbolic value, as representing a time when the Communist Party was pure,” Mr. Clark said. But young audiences were unlikely to flock to it, he predicted. “It’s just an impossible task, given the Internet and everything else,” he said. “It comes across like someone standing in the street in a Yan’an-era uniform.”
Mr. Xi serves as Communist Party general secretary, as well as president, and in October 2014, he gave a lengthy speech to a gathering of writers and artists in Beijing, naming dozens of favorite authors and describing his own principles.
“This is taking concrete action to implement General Secretary Xi Jinping’s important speech and ‘opinions’ ” on art and literature, the ministry said. “The revival of the opera ‘The White-Haired Girl’ under new conditions, and its widespread dissemination, has major practical significance and far-reaching historical significance.”
Peng Liyuan, now married to President Xi Jinping, performed the lead role in “The White-Haired Girl” in the 1980s.
If Mr. Xi needs more reason to favor the revival of the opera, there is also the fact that his wife, Peng Liyuan, is an artistic director for the new production, according to the Ministry of Culture.
Well before Mr. Xi came to power, Ms. Peng was more famous than he in China as a singer of stirring party and military ballads, and she played the lead role in “The White-Haired Girl” during the 1980s, when she was a performer in a People’s Liberation Army troupe. Ms. Peng is now president of the People’s Liberation Army Academy of Art.
“During her busy schedule, Prof. Peng Liyuan on multiple occasions found time to appraise and guide revision of the performance,” the ministry said. “She also gave classes to the main actors, personally giving demonstrations during their rehearsals.”
“The White-Haired Girl” was also adapted as a ballet during the Cultural Revolution.
For some Chinese, the entanglement of a party leader and his spouse in determining artistic values through a “model opera” is likely to bring disquieting echoes of the past.
Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, a trained actress, sang parts of the operaand, after she amassed power during the Cultural Revolution, oversaw a ballet adaptation as part of the repertoire of revolutionary “model” stage works. As a rising official, Mr. Xi was friendly with the writer Li Mantian, who wrote the story that was an inspiration for the opera.
“I’ve talked with several artists, and whenever I ask what the most pressing problem in literature and the arts is, they all say one word, ‘shallow,’ ” Mr. Xi said in his talk to artists and writers last year. “Some works mock the majestic, warp the classics, subvert history, uglify the masses and heroic figures. Some make no distinction between right and wrong, good and evil.”
Yet “The White-Haired Girl” is also a dramatic story that has endured the shifts in China’s political winds over the decades. Each period since its first performance has brought adaptations, including a well-known film version in 1950 and the later ballets. The swelling, lyrical music absorbs traditional songs and opera from northern China.
“The music is so familiar to anyone over, say, 40 or 50,” Mr. Clark said. “The vividness of the imagery of her hair turning white and so on is quite something for Chinese, in particular, who are used to monochromatic hair.”
The story centers on Xi’er, a young peasant woman in a north Chinese village, whose family is persecuted by a brutal landlord who drags her away to serve as his slave and concubine. She eventually escapes to the hills, and for years, she finds shelter in a cave, where her hair turns white, giving rise to the local belief that she is a ghost. Her fiancé, Wang Dachun, who has joined the Communist forces, returns and decides to look for her. He finds her in her cave, and they rejoice in a future together under revolutionary liberation.
“In the original version, the heroine becomes pregnant after being raped by the villainous landlord,” said Brian James DeMare, an assistant professor of Chinese history at Tulane University and author of “Mao’s Cultural Army: Drama Troupes in China’s Rural Revolution.” “After she realizes she is pregnant, she initially hopes to marry her attacker,” Mr. DeMare said, “but ultimately runs away when she realizes that she is to be sold off.”
Later versions were bowdlerized to omit her pregnancy.
“By the Cultural Revolution, when a ballet version of the show became a model work, the portrayal of the characters was totally revised,” Mr. DeMare said. “Now the landlord could barely menace the strong peasant characters, robbing the show of the original’s emotional charge.”
The Ministry of Culture said that the latest revival incorporated several new elements. The script was revised at least 10 times, it said — a reflection of the official attention given to the production. The new show features “3D” visual effects, which officials said would add authenticity. It is unclear whether Mr. Xi will attend any of the performances.
Mao arrived late the first time he went to watch the opera, Mr. DeMare said.
“Mao was not personally involved in the creation of the show, but must have approved of the show,” he said. “Party leaders did send the creators a note asking for the landlord to be executed at the end.”
Vanessa Piao contributed research.