Curtain rises on history

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The Independent Online
FOR YOUNG Luo Ming, this has been a week of being a ghost, a palace maid and a dancing eunuch.

As an extra among the 1,000-strong cast for Turandot, the Puccini opera that opens tonight in Peking's Forbidden City, Ms Luo, 17, has spent the week dancing on a stage where Emperors used to worship their ancestors. And all under the direction of Zhang Yimou, China's best-known film-maker, Oscar nominated for Raise the Red Lantern.

Yimou, like Ms Luo, had no previous experience of Western opera. "The first time when I heard the opera singer without the microphone, her words could be heard in every corner of the palace. It was quite excellent," said Ms Luo.

It is five years since she left home in Xian to enrol at the school at the Peking Dance College. Turandot is certainly very different from her last gala show, when she was in a folk dancing troupe for the official celebrations in Tiananmen Square on the night of 30 June 1997 to mark Hong Kong's return to China. So which event did she find most moving? "Both are very exciting," she said.

Last Sunday marked the start of final rehearsals. "The main problem, since we have so many performers, was the need to co-ordinate with the other people. There are 100 dancers from my school, and another 300 extras from the People's Armed Police (PAP), and then all the Italian singers," she said. The policemen have walk-on parts as palace guards and drummers. What were they like to work with? "They are well-disciplined. But I did not talk to them, and none of them do any dancing," she added.

Zhang Yimou's pounds 9m production aims to recreate an authentic Ming dynasty presentation of Imperial life, in keeping with the Forbidden City architecture. Was it exciting to work with such a famous film director? "He never loses his temper, he does not stand on ceremony, he is very polite," said Ms Luo.

But Sunday was a very long day, with the rehearsal not finishing until 11.30pm, aften 10 hours. "I was very tired," she said.

It was back on stage at 1.30pm on Monday. The hand-made costumes costing about pounds 370,000 are incredibly ornate. "They are quite exquisite, very beautiful,'' said Ms Luo. "But very hot to wear. My costumes are made from heavy satin, with a lining. Sometimes in rehearsal when I changed from the eunuch to the palace maid, there was not enough time to change so I put the palace maid costume on top."

Tuesday started with morning exercises at the dance school. Ms Luo's roles make little use of her training in classical Chinese dance. "Compared with our dance lessons at school, it is an easy job." But not one that she is being paid for. "The school gets the money. We are supposed to get a meal allowance, but we have not received it yet." The evening's dress rehearsal kicked off at 6.30pm, for the first time in full make- up as well as costume.

Wednesday was due to be a proper performance in front of journalists and invited Chinese guests. "It started to rain. Everything was ready, but it rained continuously. We waited for two hours to see if it would stop, but it did not. We were quite moved to see the audience still sitting in the rain. But we went home, a bit disappointed."

It was crucial that the weather did not deteriorate on Thursday. For this dress rehearsal, cheap tickets had been sold to local Chinese, and every seat was full. The skies darkened, and everyone feared the worst. But the distant thunder changed its mind. "Thursday night was the first time we had done a performance all the way through without stopping,"said Ms Lou.

Friday, and the final countdown. Ms Luo spent the day resting. In the evening she turned up for one last run-through, but without costumes or make-up.

There are three separate casts of soloists, and because of the rain, some of the singers needed more practice with the microphones.

This evening's First Night will be Ms Luo's first glimpse of an international audience. "It will be so exciting," she beamed. For her, there will never be another Turandot, but Ms Luo has a good idea what will be her next really big show - the 50th anniversary celebrations of the founding of the People's Republic of China on 1 October 1999.