It was time to “throw myself out into the world,” as Middle Alison says in “Fun Home,” or at least into Guangzhou’s performing arts world. I had been here two months with only one theater night, a visiting Beijing opera troupe at the campus auditorium down the street. But last week, as so often in New York, everything seemed to be happening at the same time; here as there, the season has begun. The parallel feels slightly surreal (as does the fact that, as I write, I’m listening to the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players, whom I’ve written about for City Center Playbill, promoting their new season on wqxr.org).
Last week, a cab driver serendipitously took me to the wrong art museum. (There are two with similar names, and despite my pointing to a map, he preferred the closer one.) It was serendipitous because the Guangdong Museum of Art had so much more to see than when I visited five years ago, but also because it’s next door to the Xinghai Concert Hall. I had been trying to find an online calendar in English for this sleek hall on the river ever since I spotted it on the night cruise. In the lobby I found not only the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra’s season s schedule, but also flyers for the Guangzhou Jazz Festival, a night of movie music, a Menachem Pressler recital and two Vienna-style New Year’s concerts.
The first one that appealed to me was coming up that week, the symphony’s subscription concert of Mendelssohn and Rachmaninoff – each composer’s first piano concerto. Two on one program seemed odd, but they were performed by different pianists: Wang Yalun, a girl around Small Alison’s age, in a white dress with a sash tied in a big bow behind her that Alison would hate, and Sun Yingdi, a young man. He pounded the keys, at least in the first movement of the Rachmaninoff, but she had a delicate, trickling touch. Conducting was Long Yu, “China’s Herbert von Karajan . . . the most powerful figure in China’s classical music scene,” according to my old New York Times colleague Dave Barboza as quoted on the flyer.
The hall is configured much like the Berlin Phiharmonic’s home: the orchestra is in the middle, surrounded by listeners, and the cheap seats behind the musicians offer views of the conductor’s front instead of back, for a change. The acoustics are lovely, but Chinese audiences behave no better than New Yorkers. They check their smartphones throughout performances, talk with no regard for other listeners, and let their little emperors and empresses run wild. (During an encore, one father and son behind the orchestra tried to leave via the stage steps.) Two teenage girls in front of me kept talking during the concert, but at least they seemed to be discussing the pianists’ techniques. Ushers stand in the house and watch carefully, using red laser pointers to discourage bad behavior and, when necessary, entering the rows, which have enough legroom to let them.
The next evening, I made my first trip to the architect Zaha Hadid’s spaceship of an Opera House to see “Glengarry Glen Ross” in the smaller, 300-some-seat theater. The conversation at the ticket counter was the usual: “But it’s in Chinese.” “Yes, I know. It’s an American play I know very well. I want to hear how it sounds in Chinese.” (I refrained from adding, “That’s my idea of fun.”) David Mamet’s 1984 play about real estate agents hustling a questionable new development seemed especially a propos in today’s Guangzhou, where massive new skyscrapers are going up on every vacant lot. When I taught in Hunan, billboards near campus advertised housing developments under construction with French and Venetian themes. Why not Glengarry Glen Ross?
“Let me know what the F word is in Chinese,” wrote Georgia, chief usher at Circle in the Square, when I mentioned I was going to “Glengarry.” I didn’t hear anything over and over again that sounded as if it could be Mamet’s signature word, though at once point I was hearing a lot of dui – “right?” or “yeah.” I had thought Mamet’s sharp, staccato language might transfer well to Chinese, which I often hear as loud, abrupt and harsh, but in fact it sounded softer in translation; the park workers I had heard talking that night while waiting for my dumplings at a food stand sounded more like Mamet. Shelly Levene was as desperate as ever, but the production didn’t really come to life until the scene where the real estate office is ransacked and the actors started walking on the oversized table representing their workspace. The musical choices made me laugh: an easy-listening version of “Try to Remember” (which I often sing to my permanent neighbor Jerry Ohrbach as I walk past his grave in Upper Manhattan on my way to the pool); “Love Theme From Romeo and Juliet,” the 1968 movie of my teenage years; and the Habanera from “Carmen.”
I was back the next night, this time in the Opera Hall for Mozart’s “Magic Flute” from the Komische Oper Berlin. I had wavered; the cheap seats were sold out, and the Komische Oper has an unfortunate tendency toward Regietheater, the European trend in which directors insist on putting their own often senseless stamps on productions. (The last opera I recall seeing at the company’s home just off Unter den Linden was a version of Rossini’s normally frothy “Italiana in Algerie” in which l’Italiana is shot dead at the end for shock value.) But I wanted to see something in the Opera Hall, and “The Magic Flute” was the most appealing thing scheduled for my time in Guangzhou. (Second choice: a second-tier Russian ballet company in “The Sleeping Beauty,” “Swan Lake” and “Coppelia,” none of which I need to see again anytime soon, perhaps in this lifetime.)
It turned out to be the right choice, especially for Halloween weekend. Papageno’s birds are white owls the look like Casper the Friendly Ghost; pumping human hearts explode with love; and there’s a delightful black cat that I mistakenly thought might transform into Papagena. This arachnophobe was not pleased to see the Queen of the Night depicted as a giant knife-throwing spider, but as always her aria was worth it.
The sets and props are almost entirely animations projected onto a white wall, with precarious little ledges high above the stage for singers, presumably in safety harnesses, to stand. Standing in one spot much of the time and interacting only with projections must feel something like singing a recital. (The company brought along the Arnold Schonberg Choir Wien but used a local orchestra, the Shenzhen Symphony.) The projections didn’t always hit their marks as precisely as, say, the Zapruder film of the JFK assassination hitting Neil Patrick Harris’s T-shirt in “Assassins,” but in general they worked. (One thing that doesn’t: the hall’s hard, bare wooden steps. With latecomers admitted anytime and audience members coming and going as they please, the clacking of their heels points up a serious design flaw.) So did the silent-movie conceit, with a Buster Keatonish Papageno in a yellow suit and flat-topped hat, and narrative titles in German, with supertitles in Chinese and English. Cartoonish? Yes, but fun.
On Saturday night I returned to Xinghai for the week’s finale, a evening of film scores by Zhao Jiping. “That looks like ‘Raise the Red Lantern,’ ” I had thought when I had picked up the flyer, and I was right. Online research revealed it was a program by the Guangdong National Orchestra of scores by Zhao Jiping, including that film and “Farewell My Concubine.” Would it be more like the New York Philharmonic’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Modern Times,” with the score played live, or Film Night at Tanglewood, with clips from movies scored largely by John Williams?
As it turned out, neither. No film was shown, so this was the kind of concert where, as an old boss of mine once said, “you just sit there with your feet hanging down.” That is, you actually had to listen to the music, and it was well worthwhile.
The orchestra of about 65 looked, and sounded, familiar yet different. To the conductor’s left, in place of the violins, were two dozen erhus (stringed instruments something like the Japanese shamisen); to his right, the violas were replaced by a dozen pipas (like big banjos), with cellos and basses in the usual spots. Another dozen flute and brass players sat upstage, in front of the much- and well-used percussion. Soloist Wang Shuang — dressed to the teeth first in a billowing red gown, then in a slinky gold-and-silver sequined dress – sang in that high nasal voice that Westerners may hear as a cat with its tail caught in a screen door. The audience adored her.
Without visuals or an English program, I couldn’t match the almost two hours of music to the movies I had seen, but never mind. Near the end, the composer was applauded in his fist-tier seat. The third and final encore was a clap-along march, apparently the Chinese equivalent of Strauss’s “Radetzky.”
After four nights out in a row, it is now time for an evening in front of the TV. I’m not sure when or how often I’ll be back in the concert halls; for one thing, it’s not easy getting a taxi home afterwards. But in December the Opera House has a “dance drama” called “Crested Ibises.” China’a “Firebird”? I may have to go find out.