Opera premiere cancelled in Beijing 'for political reasons' (important updates)

Opera premiere cancelled in Beijing 'for political reasons' (important updates)


norman lebrecht

September 22, 2011

An opera that should have premiered this week in Beijing has been cancelled, according to its promoter, ‘for political reasons’.

The opera deals with the life of the nationalist leader Sun Yat-Sen, who is anathema to the Communist regime. It was always a delicate proposition.

Its composer, Huang Ruo, is represented by Karsten Witt music management in Berlin. Their statement on the cancellation says that the western-instrument production was ‘cancelled at short notice due to political reasons’. The management is seeking another venue for the world premiere.

A journalist in Beijing tells me that an official postponement had been ascribed to “technical difficulties in the vocal and orchestral score”; the production has been replaced by a work called Chinese Orphan.

The impresario has messaged this site to say that the Chinese-instrument version of the opera is still going ahead in Hong Kong on October 13.

Meanwhile, I hear privately from someone who was present at the first rehearsal in Beijing that the reason for cancelling the western-instrument was that one senior official decided, there and then, that the music was ‘too modern’ for senior Party cadres, who were due to attend the opera, which marks the centenary of the Chinese Republic. More information is still coming in.

Here is an advance report on the opera and its first act, previewed in New York in May.

Sun yat sen opera



  • Eva says:

    Addendum: The World Premiere of the version for Chinese orchestra of “Dr. Sun Yat-sen” will actually take place according to schedule, that means on 13 October 2011 at 7:45 pm at Opera Hong Kong Cultural Centre. Further performances will take place on 14 and 15 October at 7:45 pm and on 16 October at 3 pm, also at Hong Kong Cultural Centre.
    It is the World Premiere of the version for Western orchestra that was cancelled in Beijing.

  • ed says:

    Dear Mr. Lebrecht-

    You state in your second sentence that “[t]he opera deals with the life of the nationalist leader Sun Yat Sen, who is anathema to the communist regime. It was always a delicate proposition”

    With all due respect, I believe you are off the mark. Sun Yat Sen has always been considered by the CCP as the father of the Chinese Revolution, even if his ideology may have been considered incomplete- and he most certainly resides in the pantheon of revered Chinese revolutionary leaders. (I haven’t heard it reported that his mausoleum in Nanjing has been dismantled yet.) Are you sure you weren’t thinking of Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-Shek) who seized power after Dr. Sun died, and then went on to purge the Guomindang of its Communist members. An opera about him would indeed be a touchy proposition.

    However, I wonder if the difficulties with this opera are more about the complexity of its notation and composition, and the melding of the Western and Chinese operatic traditions, as well as in its examination of the personal life of Dr. Sun- given that the Party tends to depersonalize and mythologize its leaders. Furthermore, right now one is seeing some very cutting edge work created by a number of younger artists, and they are questioning not only technical traditions, but also established cultural and political dogmas in non-verbal and sometimes iconoclastic ways- and this may make the Party uneasy. (One knows, of course of Ai Weiwei, but there are many others, including the Beijing Contemporary Dance Theater, Willy Tsao and Beijing Dance LDTX, etc., that are experimenting with new techniques and cultural meanings, and doing so in non-verbal ways with sometimes hidden meanings. So, yes, politics may also be an underlying factor.

    On an unrelated issue related to the suspension of the four symphony players, I raised a point about the political tradition of the London Philharmonic. However, in your reply, you seemed to dismiss Thomas Russell and his stewardship of the orchestra as having been under communist influence. The allies were fighting a world war, and one’s political persuasion didn’t seem to matter until later, during the witch hunts of the Cold War period when Russell was forced out. (After all wasn’t J.D. Bernal, a confirmed Socialist, the scientific advisor to Lord Mountbatten’s and responsible for major military engineering innovati?) My understanding is that while Russell was orchestra manager, the concert director/program director was Felix Aprahamian- who later was a distinguished music critic of the Sunday Times -he was a staunch monarchist- and that, notwithstanding differences in political ideology, the orchestra was united in its vision and direction during the war.

    You may have hit on a deeper point however, and that is that Russell was fired and essentially blacklisted during the Red Scare, and the orchestra basically caved in, notwithstanding his brilliant work during the war, (something widely acknowledged at the time). So here maybe you have it again, four musicians suspended by management and now out of work- only temporarily one hopes- because of a political stance they took in a protest letter in which they fully identified who they were.

    Looking to the future, may the orchestra clarify its terms of employment , but in such a way that it doesn’t have
    a chilling effect on political speech.

    • Russell, I think I stated, fell victim to a Cold War witchhunt. His politics did not overtly affect his management of the orch. However, in 1953 no subsidy-receiving London orch (let alone an American one) could afford to have a manager who was an avowed supporter of the USSR.

      • ed says:

        I think your acknowledgment of Russell’s victiimization during the Cold War still leaves the impression that he pursued an agenda to further the political interests of the USSR, and that it influenced his management of the London Philharmonic , albeit “sub rosa”- i.e., without being overt, thereby perpetuating the myth that he was a communist “agent” or “spy”.

        Prof. Richard Witt has written a fascinating, but also disturbing account of Russell’s firing; and it reveals that Russell had strong support not only in the orchestra committee- he was not only highly innovative in the orchestra’s programming and in ensuring its financial survival during a period of hardship- but he himself had been a violist, and helped institute and promote the policy of self governance by the orchestra’s musicians.) Just as important, the orchestra had the strong support in the community- while other orchestras were struggling, the London Philharmonic continued to survive and remain successful, despite little or no grant funding.

        But in the end, outside political influences, aided by the machinations of Adrian Boult, conspired to blackmail the orchestra with the denial of a new home in which to present its concerts, a force his termination. The article also notes that many other outstanding British musicians (as well as others who had emigrated to Britain), were also being blacklisted, and these included Sir Michael Tippett, Alan Bush and,Berthold Goldschmidt. (Unfortunately, at that time, the political loyalties of anyone in the peace movement were regarded as suspect. Now, it is for other reasons.)

        The article can be accessed at: http://www.richardwitts.com/pdf/Boult_Russell.pdf
        (Violists are urged to read it.)

  • Guo says:

    It is worth to refer to the comment by an individual political critic from mainland China, whose view point to this issue is sincere and very close to the political reality of China. I’m afraid that I am not able to translate it properly. But here you go: