Helping to mend broken China

Madame Mao would not approve of a show uniting artists from both sides of the cultural revolution.

In communist China, the idea of "doing things by the book" once meant only one thing: the Little Red Book, otherwise known as The Thoughts of Chairman Mao.

"Out with the old, in with the new" was another innocuous Western cliche that would have taken on sinister overtones at the time of the so-called Cultural Revolution, those three disastrous years during which the red- bound thoughts of the Chairman were so destructively realised in the blood- stained actions of his wife, Chiang Ch'ing. Out went the "Four Olds" - old ideas, old culture, old customs, old habits - and in marched the Red Guard and the fearsome Gang of Four.

A former Shanghai actress (under the stage name Lan P'ing), Mme Mao made the "reform" of the Peking Opera her pet project: in place of the old "bourgeois" historical dramas and romances, Chiang Ch'ing herself devised five new revolutionary ballets, the most famous of which, The Red Detachment of Women, featured an all-singing, all-dancing troop of the Red Women's Militia rescuing a poor peasant girl from rape and torture at the hands of a sadistic landowner on a torrid tropical island.

If that scenario sounds at all familiar to anyone who has been following the Barbican's cornucopian "Inventing America" season, it may be because the composer, John Adams, and the director, Peter Sellars, incorporated their own re-working of The Red Detachment into the central act of their now-historic headline-based opera, Nixon in China, the belated London premiere of which (11 years after the rest of the world got to see it) launched the Barbican Centre's year-long season in January.

Sadly, that performance was only a concert version, so Londoners still haven't seen the trend-setting staging that first declared Sellars as one of the most exciting, thought-provoking and emotionally direct (if predictably controversial) directors of his generation.

And now, confession time. "I took the whole thing right out of a textbook," Sellars admits. "It's called Secrets of the Chinese Drama. It's by Celia R Zung, it was published in Shanghai in 1932, I found it in a rare- book store, and it was my Bible for about 10 years." So that's the book he did it by.

"I would take all kinds of things out of it," Sellars continues. "With Nixon in China, in particular, I followed the directions as meticulously as possible. I staged the whole thing as a giant Chinese opera. For the Mao and Nixon scene, for example, I simply used the classical Shanghai kunqu [Shanghai opera] approach to when two leaders meet. And, of course, what's great is that, because people knew those images from television, nobody guessed that I was actually taking it straight from a Chinese Opera textbook."

It's not as simple as that, of course, as the infectious Sellars laugh betrays. But the director's "confession" does at least serve to convey something of the sense of life turning full circle and old debts being repaid that informs his latest project, The Peony Pavilion, arriving at the Barbican for a 10-day run on Thursday.

The story of Du Liniang (a girl raised from the grave by a lover she has only ever met (and slept with) in her dreams), The Peony Pavilion is the acknowledged erotic masterpiece of the kunqu tradition and a classic feminist text. Written exactly 400 years ago, by one Tang Xianzu, it's just the kind of work that Mme Mao wanted swept from the Chinese stage. Coincidentally, it's also the first piece of Chinese theatre Peter Sellars saw when he visited Shanghai as a 24-year-old student in the early 1980s, "though, of course, I had no idea what I was seeing. I was just bumming around Shanghai looking for a theatre, walked into one, and this is what they were doing."

The irony is that Sellars was more interested in the Revolutionary ballets that Mme Mao had devised than in the kunqu operas they were designed to displace. Confession time again: "When I first graduated from university," admits a shame-faced Sellars, "I actually tried to stage one of the Revolutionary ballets in New York. And people were outraged. `Don't you know that lives were lost over this?' they said to me. `How can you put this on?' So I didn't. I cancelled it."

Or postponed it, rather. For two years later it materialised within Nixon in China, "where we did our own version of The Red Detachment of Women, with, you know, the women all entering on pointe shoes, carrying rifles."

And here's a further rich comic irony of the kind that only a Cultural Revolution could throw up. For Sellars discovered, to his amazement, that the instigator of the Peony Pavilion project, Mme Hua Wenyi (the former director of the Shanghai Opera Company, a renowned Du Liniang in her own right, and the woman who, eight years ago, challenged Sellars to find a way of rescuing the kunqu tradition from obscurity) was one of the original rifle-carrying women revolutionaries in Mme Mao's pointe- stepping Red Detachment.

"It's one of Hua Wenyi's greatest roles," Sellars laughs, relishing history's little joke, "and she loves it! She loves all those revolutionary ballets! Because that's what she performed. It was out of the question to perform Peony Pavilion."

That Mme Hua Wenyi is now once again starring in the classic drama is due not only to Sellars but to the third collaborator in the project, the Hunan-born, New York-based composer, Tan Dun. Only last month, the Proms presented Tan's 1997 symphony for the Hong Kong hand-over, Heaven Earth Mankind, in which the composer resurrects the long-buried sounds of a 65-strong peal of 2,400-year-old bronze ritual bells, rediscovered in a Zhou Dynasty warrior's tomb in Hubei.

In Part 1 of Peony Pavilion (the story of Du Liniang's dream courtship and death), Tan has performed no less remarkable an archaeological feat, brilliantly re-creating the imagined sound of an authentic Sung Dynasty troupe through virtuoso use of the human voice and simple lute, flute and percussion accompaniments. Sellars, meanwhile, initiates the first stage of the evening's East-West dialogue by counterpointing the stylised artificiality of his two kunqu artists, Mme Hua and her colleague Shi Jiehua, with the naturalism of a matching pair of American actors performing the scenes in English.

Part 2, however, is something else - a full-frontal operatic assault in which Tan responds to the magical rituals and amorous couplings of Du's resurrection by unleashing a wild panoply of modern electronic effects and enhancements, samplers and synthesisers, while also having the benefit of a pair of real Chinese opera singers (including Ying Huang, star of last year's Madame Butterfly film) to set beside the Chinese Opera singers and Western thesps.

To describe Tan's score (with its mixture of udo drums and rock drum- kit; Tibetan chant and Monteverdian melisma; Puccini-esque bel canto that suddenly soars into ecstatic oriental glissandi; strange atavistic howlings (the composer himself on tape) and ghostly Gregorian choirs) can make it all sound dangerously like the ersatz kleptomaniac kitsch of Karl (Adiemus) Jenkins. But, as Sellars rightly insists, the difference is that, for Tan, it's not "quotation" - not just the musical equivalent of the supermarket trolley dash - but lived experience.

It was Tan's first hearing of Beethoven, as a 19-year-old student in Peking, that made him decide to become a composer. At the same time, to his generation of young Chinese, rock music came to represent all the hopes that were finally to be dashed in Tiananmen Square. And, long before that, it was thanks to the Cultural Revolution, while Mme Hua was high- stepping with her rifle, that Tan's parents were sent back to the rice fields and he himself was entrusted to the care of a peasant grandmother, who duly taught him how to play the old erhu fiddle and initiated him into ancient village rites.

On the surface, Peony Pavilion must be Peter Sellars' least political work to date - a simple story of two people in love, a masterclass in contrasting acting styles, a celebration of the return of melody to modern classical music. But what, ironically, could be more "political", in anyone's book than this coming together of Mme Hua and Tan Dun, two generations of Chinese artists - the one establishment, the other anti-establishment - who simply would never have met each other on Chinese soil.

`Peony Pavilion': 6.30pm on 10-12, 14-16, 18-19 September and 3pm Sunday 20 September, at the Barbican Theatre, Silk St, London EC2 (0171-638 8891).

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