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Struggles, Political and Poetical: Datong, The Chinese Utopia

29 July 2017

Datong – The Chinese Utopia

by Chan Hing-Yan , libretto by Evans Chan

Hong Kong Arts Festival at Richmond Theatre, 27th and 28th July

Review by Suzanne Frost

Right from the start, a most exotic sound is coming from the orchestra pit, when the tuning to middle A is joined by flutes, chimes and Huqin – a variety of Chinese string instruments.

Datong, a chamber opera written by composer Chan Hing-Yan and librettist Evans Chan will be, to someone with no previous knowledge like me, most of all a history lesson.  It was performed in Richmond as part of the Hong Kong Music Series presented by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council.  The work was commissioned and produced by Hong Kong Arts Festival.

Datong 1

Datong follows the story of Kang Yuwei, one of China’s most important philosophers who, at the turn of the 20th century, campaigned for political reform and human rights and envisaged a utopia of humanism, equality and solidarity – called “Datong”.  He forms a controversial figure in modern China, because instead of a revolution he favoured constitutional monarchy, believing that China, unlike America, is an old country that needs to incorporate instead of overturn tradition.  We learn about Kang through the women in his life, his daughter and, later in Act 2, granddaughter.  Kang Tongbi travelled with her father to America, became the first Asian graduate of Columbia University and met President Roosevelt to campaign for Chinese workmen’s rights.  Her father, we learn, allowed her to grow up without binding of the feet, a cruel and disabling tradition forced onto girls in China, and she became one of the early feminists.  In a time jump to 1969 we see Kang’s granddaughter Luo Yifeng sawing off the heels of her western high heel shoes while the revolution is in full swing outside.

DAtong 2

At the heart of this opera, I believe, is the struggle of reforming and honouring the traditions of an ancient country and also integrating western influences while staying true to China’s identity.

Datong5

The music is an interesting attempt at harmonising Chinese and western music, playing on themes from traditional Asian music, to the American national anthem, to the Beatles (to signify the time-lapse to 1969, a funny moment) but it is certainly very challenging music and reminds me occasionally of Aribert Reimann.  The opera is sung in Mandarin (which I later learnt from a very well informed audience member fits western opera style better than Cantonese, for the way in which the tongue is used) and occasionally in English in the scenes with Roosevelt and an English missionary.  It is surtitled throughout but the letters often fly over the screen too fast to follow.  The Chinese certainly have a very poetic way of using language, very metaphorical with lots of references to nature, weather, birds, the elements.  It is heightened language which fits opera well.  I think the subject matters, the political and philosophical struggles, don’t lend themselves that easily because they are heavy on the intellectual aspects, whereas opera is traditionally looking for heightened emotion.  But there are emotional moments, the prettiest and most poetic probably when father and daughter both read from Confucius’ manifesto, an unusual duet between bass and soprano.  The evening belongs, in my eyes, to Louise Kwong as Kang Tongbi who has a voice clear as glass and a captivating stage presence.  The setting is sparse which gives all the more glory to the elaborate traditional costumes.

Datong4

There are many things I didn’t know before that I learnt from this opera, for example that Chinese workforce build the railways in America or about the 100-Day reform, overthrown by the Qing Dynasty (Carol Lin makes a great villain as Empress Dowager Cixi with a venomously delivered recitative).  Other times, I just feel I lack a lot of background knowledge: Why is Luo Yifeng cutting off the heels of her shoes?  Is it in uproar against everything westernised?  Is she forced to do this?  Is she rebelling against the philosophies of her father?  I do not know.  I didn’t become clear to me.  What I did understand is that Kang’s utopian dream was trampled on, that his grave was vandalised, he was accused of being a Royalist and his idealistic philosophy was degraded as just empty words.  Through this controversial figure of Kang Yuwei, we get a sense of what an immense struggle it is to balance tradition, identity and modernity.

Datong3

In a silent epilogue, a young girl in modern dress enters the stage and picks up one of Luo Yifeng’s cut off heels … China, it seems, is still unsure what to do with women’s feet.

Suzanne Frost

July 2017

Photographs by Yankov Wong

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From → Opera, Reviews

One Comment
  1. I found this a very interest review and was glad to read about the Chinese history

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