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.

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

Author: BLOGmaiden

As one of the earliest bloggers (since 1999), I enjoy meeting people who embrace "out-of-the-box" thinking and fear not the unknown. I believe in collaboration for sustainability because it increases stakeholder value.

3 thoughts on “Chinese opera in Amsterdam”

  1. Hi Anne, I feel really exited about all of your family stories. When I was a small kid and later a teenager, my father loved to put make up on my face to make me chinese looking. He gave me Chinese clothes. I have a photo, me on my bick in a chinese kimono and a white face, red little lips and I won the first price. He brought instuments from China and Japan. We have a beautiful bamboo sho from Japan. I was always experimenting with it. The sound is as a small organ, I think the Fokker-organ and the erhu will sound great together.
    I hope my new composition will go fine. next week I will hear it in rehearsal. Greetings, Joke.

  2. Anne, a few years ago an opera company performed a Chinese opera for the children of my school — a sort of scaled down performance appropriate for the 5-11 year old. I was certain that the kids would be bored (and therefore naughty) but they were captivated! It received the best review from our kids of any performance that we had this year. They loved not just the power of the voice but the fact that it was Chinese and such a large number of our kids are of Chinese ancestry. It was incredible.

    1. Thanks for reminding me — a scene of children with painted faces mimicking Chinese opera in high pitched cries. I remember that well. I wonder if Western children grow up mimicking Figaro or other famous (Western) opera characters.

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