Norma in Kaohsiung

Amid the Pandemic, a New Landscape for Opera in Taiwan . . . and in Beijing

On a warm evening this past January, a crowd gathered outside the Weiwuying Opera House in Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s second largest city, more than an hour before the night’s performance was scheduled to begin. As they waited to enter the theater, people explored an opera-themed bazaar set up underneath the towering canopies stretched between the wings of the sprawling performing arts center to resemble local banyan trees. As buskers performed Italian arias, vendors dished out creations based on the evening’s program, Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma. A local food truck was offering portions of Pasta alla Norma, a Sicilian eggplant dish named after Bellini’s opera because, according to a perhaps apocryphal story, a happy diner declared it to be a masterpiece on par with the bel canto classic. Nearby, a small bar was pouring glasses of “Norma pink sparkling wine” and a local gelato stand had established a small kiosk serving “Norma sundaes.” A sign nearby explained, “the chocolate brownie is a metaphor for Norma’s fiery love. Even though she is treated as coldly as ice cream by her chosen lover, her love for him cannot be extinguished.”

Fortified with these refreshments, the crowd made its way into the theater where the Taiwanese soprano Hanying Tso-Petanaj sang the opera’s title role, one that has enticed and challenged opera’s greatest divas. Norma in Kaohsiung was the type of event that made the COVID pandemic feel distant, even as the Omicron wave was reaching its peak elsewhere. Patrons wore masks and scanned a QR code to register their attendance in a national contact-tracing system, but these public health measures kept Taiwan largely COVID-free for much of the global pandemic and its performers on stage even while their counterparts around the world were stuck at home.

Still, one aspect of Taiwan’s successful pandemic management also posed a significant challenge to local opera productions: the two-week-long quarantine that all incoming travelers must undergo in specially designated hotels. Prior to 2020, many opera performances in Taiwan featured foreign singers in leading roles, but with the onset of the pandemic those stars could no longer perform in Taiwan because of the quarantine requirement. Yet, opera has continued in Taiwan and the result has been a localization of the art form as recent productions have placed domestic singers at center stage, casting them in starring roles that might previously have gone to foreigners.

A similar shift has taken place in Beijing, previously a regular stop for opera’s greatest global stars, but now cut off from the international circulation of artists by the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC’s) stringent border controls. Unlike in Taiwan, however, the changes in Beijing have extended beyond just casting: Recent opera seasons have primarily featured original works by Chinese composers, many of them displaying strident nationalist sentiment and glorifying the achievements of the Communist Party.

Unlike in Beijing, the classics of the European canon still hold sway in Taiwan and local performers like Tso are stepping into some of opera’s most iconic roles rather than channeling revolutionary heroes. The role of Norma is famously challenging for sopranos, demanding exceptional vocal range and control. In 1964, The New York Times reported that “pro and anti factions” clashed with each other in the balcony of Paris’ Palais Garnier when detractors booed an interpretation of Norma by Maria Callas. The audience in Kaohsiung was more unanimously appreciative of Tso’s efforts as she and the rest of the cast sang against the backdrop of a production that floated abstractly through time and space from the original setting of Roman-occupied Gaul to the Cold War space race.

Before the start of the pandemic, opera lovers in Taiwan could expect local productions to feature the same stars as graced the world’s top opera houses elsewhere in the world. A production of Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre during the inaugural season of the National Taichung Theater in 2017, for example, featured prominent Wagnerian singers from overseas in all the leading roles, but cast eight Taiwanese sopranos and mezzo-sopranos as Brunnhilde’s sisters, the Valkyrie. For decades, Taiwan has also been a destination for touring opera superstars like Placido Domingo, Anna Netrebko, and Jonas Kaufmann.

Since the pandemic, nearly all of the major roles have been filled locally—a situation which has presented a new set of challenges. Most of the local performers who are now taking on starring roles previously studied voice at conservatories in Europe or the United States before returning to Taiwan. Yet, even with the increased opportunities of the last couple years, many of these local singers maintain other jobs in addition to their singing engagements. According to Ilhun Jung, a Korean baritone who has been living in Taipei for the past several years and sang the role of Figaro in Taichung’s December production of Gioachino Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia, “it is unfortunate that not only in Taiwan, but throughout Asia, opera singers have other occupations.” Julian Lo, the bass who played Don Basilio in the same production, is an adjunct professor in the music department of Soochow University, his alma mater. Taichung’s Il Barbiere production was inspired by the style of Buster Keaton movies and reimagined Figaro as a pan-handling fraud rather than a resourceful barber. Lai Chueh-yu, the soprano who sang the role of Berta, is a Ph.D. candidate in the music department of National Taiwan Normal University. Jung noted that the multiple professional obligations of cast members mean that, “it is not easy to rehearse smoothly compared to European theaters.”



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In addition to balancing rehearsals with their other professional obligations, the singers also had to navigate the novel challenge of singing through surgical masks. Weng Jo-pei, a mezzo-soprano who sang Rosina in Il Barbiere and Adalgisa in Norma, remembered that, “at one point we singers had to rehearse with masks on, which was difficult because our singing requires a lot of breathing. It was also difficult to hear our cast members clearly or see their facial expressions. It can be hard to stay focused when rehearsing under these circumstances.” Despite such complications, Weng knew that the pandemic was presenting a unique opportunity: “Adalgisa and Rosina are two roles that I have waited almost 20 years to sing, so this is quite a rare chance. Even though the two performances were less than two weeks apart, I had to take them.”

Weng also mentioned the unusual experience of virtual opera rehearsals conducted over video conferencing platforms. These online sessions were necessary, at least in part, because both operas had members of the cast and crew in quarantine hotels even as they began rehearsals. Despite the quarantine requirement, a small number of artists did travel from overseas to take part in these productions, though often they were singers with pre-existing ties to Taiwanese opera. Martin Ng, a baritone who is also the artistic director of the Singaporean opera company Lyrica Arts, spent two weeks in a Taichung hotel room to sing the role of Don Bartolo in Il Barbiere. This was just the latest of several trips to Taiwan for Ng, who also performed in La Traviata and Turandot in Kaohsiung during the pandemic. He trained in Verona under the tutelage of the Taiwanese soprano Chu Tai-Li. The Polish tenor Arnold Rutkowski quarantined in Kaohsiung before singing the role of Pollione, the Roman general who treats Norma’s heart as coldly as ice cream. He had never visited Taiwan before, but had worked with the production’s conductor, Chien Wen-pin, in Germany and was glad to help an old friend: “Pollione is not the easiest role to cast and they didn’t have a Pollione in Taiwan. . . I decided to go because in Europe the situation was not great and to go sing in Taiwan was a new adventure.”

Rutkowski participated in rehearsals virtually while he was in quarantine, annotating his copy of the score so that he understood the staging and could be up to speed once he was finally able to join in person. He found himself holding back in these online rehearsals, worried that singing his arias at full force would disturb the other recent arrivals to Taiwan who were quarantining in adjoining hotel rooms.

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When I arrived in Taipei in September to conduct the archival research for my doctoral dissertation, I was excited to see Taiwan by way of opera performances. After completing my own two weeks of quarantine, I planned trips to Kaohsiung and Taichung to coincide with the productions of Norma and Il Barbiere. In fact, because of the pandemic these were the first operas I had seen performed live in nearly two years.

Since I started traveling to East Asia for research and internships as a college student nearly a decade ago, seeking out local opera productions has been a particular quirk of my travel agenda. The highpoint of this opera tourism was a year spent in Beijing as a Master’s student, during which I attended nearly every single production in the National Center for the Performing Arts’ (NCPA) 2017-2018 season.

I regularly dragged friends along on the hour-long trek from Beijing’s university district in the northwest corner of the city to the opera house in the city center. The opera house is one of several theaters contained in a translucent glass-and-steel egg structure that floats in a reflecting pool and is immediately adjacent to the Great Hall of the People where Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife, premiered her Cultural Revolution model operas in the 1960s. The NCPA, opened in 2007 as part of the city’s pre-Olympic makeover, quickly became a destination for opera’s greatest stars as Beijing co-sponsored productions with the world’s top opera companies; during my year in Beijing I saw NCPA co-productions with The Metropolitan Opera in New York, The Vienna State Opera, and Opera Australia, often with the same stars who performed the roles in these other cities.

Before the pandemic, Taiwan might have hosted two or three opera performances each year with international superstars, usually spread out over several cities. Beijing, on the other hand, put on a full season with 14 distinct productions during the time I was there, not to mention two children’s operas. For context, the Metropolitan Opera, perhaps the top house in the world, puts on just over 20 productions in an average season, but Beijing’s season of 14 easily exceeds what an audience might expect to see in Chicago, San Francisco, or any other opera house in the United States.

Returning to the opera in Taiwan after a several year hiatus evoked memories of my time in Beijing, not just because the grand opera houses in Kaohsiung and Taichung share a certain monumental style with their counterparts in China—indeed, Francine Houben, the Dutch architect who designed the Banyan-like performing arts center in Kaohsiung, also recently completed a sprawling arts complex in Shenzhen, which shares features with its sibling across the Strait.

China, like Taiwan, has enacted some of the world’s strictest border controls and quarantine measures in an effort to control the spread of COVID. Audiences in Beijing currently can not expect to see international superstars singing at the NCPA. There too, local singers who were once confined to choruses and supporting roles have been called upon to perform opera’s signature parts. In Beijing, however, the localization of opera is not just confined to the casting, but has also manifested in the types of operas being performed. Of 16 operas performed since the start of the 2021 NCPA Opera Festival, all but three are by Chinese composers and many are original commissions that celebrate the accomplishments of the ruling Communist Party. While some of these operas highlight the Party’s historical trajectory (The Daughter of the Party and Red Boat), others emphasize its modern achievements, like Meng Weidong’s The Angel’s Diary, an opera that celebrates the heroic work of medical personnel in Wuhan during the early days of the pandemic. 

When I lived in Beijing, about half the productions were original NCPA commissions by Chinese composers and, though they often drew on familiar cultural or patriotic material—an adaptation of Lao She’s classic socialist novel Rickshaw Boy, for example—the political message rarely felt quite so on the nose. The NCPA still screens films of operas from the European canon, but for live productions the balance has clearly shifted away from Verdi and Puccini and towards a more patriotic aesthetic. This, in part, is the realization of the government’s artistic ambitions, though surely hastened by the pandemic conditions and the current political climate.

More than a decade ago, the music historian and journalist Sheila Melvin wrote about the PRC’s plans to become “a great cultural power” through opera. She outlined the founding of Chinese opera academies, opera festivals, and clinics that taught performers how to sing in Chinese, a tonal language. These initiatives are now bearing fruit as Chinese performers and original compositions replace foreign singers and European classics in China’s opera houses.

Some hope that these changes may precipitate a larger shift in the standing of Chinese artists within the opera world. While the NCPA has hosted productions from other leading opera companies, few of its original Chinese works have graced the stages of major European or American houses. The conductor Jindong Cai, who has worked extensively in both China and the United States and is also Melvin’s husband, is hopeful that Chinese works will start to find their way into the repertoires of opera companies around the world: “In the past 30 or 40 years, China has produced some of the best composers in the world. If you talk about Beethoven or Mahler, China never had composers like that in the past. But if you talk about 21st century composers, I don’t think China is behind any other part of the world. . . Chinese singers can perform Western operas, so why shouldn’t Western singers be able to perform Chinese operas?”

Perhaps, when public health measures are relaxed such that regular travel can resume, it will not be foreign singers who flock back to the NCPA and the glistening opera houses in other Chinese cities. Instead, it may be Chinese singers and original works by Chinese composers that flow out and become mainstays in foreign opera companies. Still, if this is to be the case, it is difficult to imagine that works like The Daughter of the Party or The Angel’s Diary, what Melvin and Cai have called “national operas,” will find receptive audiences in Europe or the United States.

As for Taiwan, it remains to be seen if foreign stars will return to Taipei, Taichung, or Kaohsiung as public health measures are rolled back and quarantine stays are shortened. Weng Jo-pei expressed hope that the pandemic-necessitated changes would leave a lasting impression: “I think that gradually local opera companies and audiences will understand that there are many roles and works our local singers are absolutely capable of singing.” No matter who is cast in top roles, opera will continue in Taiwan and there will be Taiwanese audiences and singers, a culture of opera lovers, awaiting new productions. As Ilhun Jung said of his voice students, “they are thirsty for opera.”