Chinese opera in Amsterdam

What was Chinese opera doing in Amsterdam? I checked out the web site of the “Music Building on the Ij.” The description of Chinese Opera Weekend, like other concerts, was written only in Dutch. [New English version link.] Several kinds of operas (Peking, Sichuan) are being performed on 13th and 14th February 2010.

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STOP PRESS: 11 Feb 2010
English version
and Last Minute Discount just offered by Muziekgebouw for Chinese Opera Weekend in Amsterdam, due to popular demand….


A composer invited me to hear a new work which is being premiered at the Chinese Opera Weekend in the Muziekgebouw aan ‘t Ij. “Sorry,” I replied. “My piano guitar duo is giving a concert in Bussum that afternoon.”

This invitation, though declined, was enough to make me curious. How did she, a Dutch singer and composer, get to write for a Chinese instrument? How did she get her work performed at the shining new 21st century building that embraces new music?

What was Chinese opera doing in Amsterdam?

I checked out the web site of the “Music Building on the Ij.” The description of Chinese Opera Weekend, like other concerts, was written only in Dutch. [New English version link.] Despite this, it’s possible to see that there are many things happening that Saturday and Sunday in Holland. Several kinds of operas (Peking, Sichuan) are being performed on 13th and 14th February 2010. It is definitely unusual to see this kind of event in the Netherlands — truly authentic Chinese performance of an ancient tradition.

I wonder if local Chinese restaurants are offering special discounts to these concerts. It would be a good way to get those fond of Chinese cuisine to see a bit of Chinese culture.

I, who grew up with my parents watching Chinese opera on television, decided to write to my 79-year old father, who is working on his memoirs.

“Is it true that Chinese opera is only appreciated by the older Chinese generation? Would it be interesting to go see it, here in Amsterdam? Should I educate myself first?”

He replied:

On the eve of Feb 14, why not consult Wikipedia offered by Google and you could more or less understand more than you wish to know? I’ve just read it, and would like to thank you for giving me the chance to find how little or shallow I really grasped the vicissitudes, evolution, status and profound this Guoju, the National Opera.

Yes, it takes education for a Chinese to enjoy this King of all Chinese local operas, since it prevails in all provinces, while local operas prevail only in their respective prov, mainly based on their dialects. However, just like Western opera, Beijing opera attracts only the elderly who grew up in the old society, a jargon of the Communists. The young are crazy about Avatar, hip-hop, hits or pops. Generation gaps?

Grannnie, Grandpa, and Father when they were young
Grannnie, Grandpa, and Father Ku when they were young

Late Grandpa once told Grannie and me he had been crazy about Peiping Opera (Pingju, called during 1927-1949 while Chiang Kai-shek unified China, not de facto of course). He spent his boyhood in impoverished environment, but he managed to get into theatres and watch almost every play for free. How?

Well, he admitted that as a boy, he was naughty but witty. He simply followed a crowd of theater-goers jostling into the gate. He pretended he was with one of the crowd, and since he was a boy, ticket checkers cared little about his presence. Once he got in, he immediately found a vacant front seat, or simply stood watching aside if he was not lucky enough to get a seat.

The role he liked best, he told me, was Sheng (young man role), not Dan (young woman role), as most fans are interested in, and the reason why. He always loved to share with Grannie and me his experience in watching those vivid, picturesque, elite parts of Chinese culture, which are all based on Chinese history, romances, legends.

On holidays in Shanghai, he would play Chinese musical instruments (he could play three of them very well) and often hum along a few arias. And he had read quite a few Chinese classics, and always considered his second beloved course was history (the first is Chinese and English).

Under his influence, I’ve read a lot of Chinese historical novels, essays, poetry, other genres of Chinese literature. And he was always happy about this and even proud of me. (When I told him all of you had completed your higher education outstandingly, he felt his struggle had not been in vain, and considered all of you the pride of the Ku family).

In retrospect, I would have ended up with majoring in history at Taita, because on the eve of filling in the form to attend the entrance exam in 1952, I decisively chose the foreign language and literature dept as my first choice, and let history be my second without hesitation.

You ask me whether Peking Opera attracts Westerners. My answer is: I don’t think Chinese audiences can accept Western opera. Isn’t Kipling’s tagline correct? The culture gap or wall is so wide that even people in the same country have difficulty conquering it.

The website you attached to your email is in Dutch, which is Greek to me. If English can be called my “uncle tongue” (I coin this), then any other foreign language is my “cousin tongue,” so to speak.

A Chinese banquet with dad, late grandpa and grannie
A Chinese banquet in Hsinchu, Taiwan: (from left) the bicycle attendant, dad, late grandpa and grannie, me, grandpa's assistant

Writing concert reviews

Writing a review may take anywhere from two hours to several days. Initially I reasoned that writing reviews would improve my writing. While writing does get easier, it’s through reading other people’s reviews that actually makes a difference.

For the reasons I listed in my previous blog entry “why musicians attend concerts,” I don’t expect professional musicians (performers) to come to my concerts or any concert. If I tally the total time spent on attending a concert, including the round-trip journey, it’s quite a chunk out of someone’s normal day.

However, I do “force” myself to go to concerts to broaden my knowledge of music. What I mean by “force” is that I write and publish reviews of concerts. Writing a review may take anywhere from two hours to several days. If I work out the opportunity cost of teaching or giving a concert, clearly it’s not worth it.

Some years ago, I decided that I needed to go to operas so that I could compose one myself. I offered to write a review of the opera in lieu of paying for the expensive ticket. Then I decided that one opera was not enough. I needed to to see more operas. The more I saw, the more I’ve come to love operas.

Initially I reasoned that writing reviews would improve my writing. One cannot advance without doing it constantly and continuously. While writing does get easier, it’s through reading other people’s reviews that actually makes a difference.

By requesting a press ticket, I felt obliged to write a review. My reputation was at stake. I could not simply go to a concert and not share the experience afterwards. It became a way of life for me —- a hard habit to break.

I don’t scan concert listings to see which concerts I’d like to attend. I get told by composers who are having their works premiered, musicians who are performing in those concerts, and e-mails from various mailing lists I’m on.

At the last concert that I reviewed, I learned in December that a composer was going to be in town to work on a piece with the performers. This did not register immediately until I received e-mails from the ensemble and two other organisations. Then it dawned on me that I should make the time to go to that concert — a world premiere of works of winners of a composition competition. “New music from China in Amsterdam” was thus born.

Soloists of Chinese instruments in Amstelkerk
Soloists of Chinese instruments in Amstelkerk, 22 Jan 2010 Photo credit: R. Straver
Nieuw Ensemble with Chinese instruments, Amstelkerk 22 Jan 2010
Nieuw Ensemble with Chinese instruments, Amstelkerk 22 Jan 2010 Photo credit: R. Straver

Why musicians attend concerts (part one)

It’s hard to get other performers to come to concerts because they are busy rehearsing or giving concerts themselves. I daresay that to take time away from my own practice (if I am not already giving a concert), it would be for reasons such as a) free …..

I don’t count on musicians attending the concerts I invite them to unless they have the time and the inclination as I’ve listed above.

Before I became full-time musician, I often wondered why the free concerts at conservatories were not well-attended. They were of excellent quality in acoustically perfect concert halls. The instruments were perfectly tuned. The concerts were listed in advance on web sites. The locations were central and easy to get to. In other words, there were no barriers to entry.

As I got busier in my studies at conservatory, I discovered that there was not much time left to go to concerts. Even if they were free, I could not afford to go. I was still curious, and I still felt the necessity to explore new repertoire and be exposed to new sounds. But it became a tough choice as the opportunity cost grew too high.

It’s hard to get other performers to come to concerts because they are busy rehearsing or giving concerts themselves. I daresay that to take time away from my own practice (if I am not already giving a concert), it would be for reasons such as

a) it’s free or nearly free

b) curiosity

c) to support another artist I know i.e. simply to show up and witness a performance

d) a personal invitation that is hard to refuse

e) to meet the others that will be there, i.e. networking

f) to educate myself

g) to see a work or composer I absolutely love or miss

h) a social occasion, i.e. to go with others and make an outing of it

I’m sure there are more reasons I’m not even aware of.

I don’t count on musicians attending the concerts I invite them to unless they have the time and the inclination as I’ve listed above.

The last reason (h) is why I’m taking time off tonight. I’m going to see a free concert performance of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” at the Amsterdam Conservatory. I invited three others to see this three hour opera. A fourth one tried to book it online, but it was already full. Even FREE performances can be “sold out.”

continued