The production by the Kunqu Opera Company was to be the centrepiece of the Lincoln Center Festival, which begins next month. The growing controversy over its fate awkwardly coincides with President Bill Clinton's official visit to China, during which cultural exchange will be highlighted.
Even as the opera's six tons of sets, costumes and props sit in containers at Shanghai International airport for a cargo flight to New York, the Municipal Bureau of Culture has decreed that the staging is inappropriate for export because of its "pornography" and accent on "feudalism". The company's departure for New York and a world tour of Paris, Sydney and Hong Kong remains blocked.
Nigel Redden, director of the Lincoln Center, was yesterday making a last-ditch attempt to change the bureau's mind. He flew to Shanghai at the weekend after learning of the embargo, arriving there on Monday. But the New York Times reported that he had made no headway, and the tour appeared to be doomed.
The intervention by the Bureau of Culture, considered a hive of old-style communist bureaucrats, puts the Lincoln Center in an embarrassing bind. Written by Tang Xianzu in 1598, the opera, which takes 55 hours to perform in its original format, is due to begin its New York run on 7 July.
Each of its six parts were to be performed over six successive evenings, with a marathon performance of the opera in its entirety over the weekend of 17 July. Unless the sets are airborne by today, Lincoln Center officials say, any hope of salvaging the run will be lost. All of the performances in New York have already been sold out.
The Bureau of Culture is upset by the reinterpretation of the opera by Chen Shi-Zheng, a naturalised American who fled his native China in 1987. The bureau has channelled its disgust with the production into local communist newspapers in Shanghai.
One printed attack in the Liberation Daily said of Mr Chen's work: "He is trying to fawn on and pander to some foreigners' biased and prejudiced view of China, intentionally showing the backward and ignorant side of Chinese people. Should classic opera be so misrepresented on stage?" For his part, Mr Chen has only voiced despair.
"It reminds me of the Cultural Revolution, when things that have no relevance to artistic debate take over, like ideology and politics. Once you get to that level, there is nothing more to say. We are not speaking the same language," he said.
Barring an eleventh-hour resolution to the dispute, all eyes in New York will be on Mr Clinton to register his disappointment during his China trip. He is due to arrive in Shanghai next Monday.