A Dream of Fragrancy

14 October 2016

Macao’s first opera celebrates China’s Shakespeare at Macao’s International Music Festival.

In the winter of 1591, Tang Xian-zu – the Shakespeare of China – made a short visit to Macao. He was amazed by the beauty and expressiveness of the Portuguese women and the variety of products brought from the west.

This brief encounter between East and West inspired Lawrence Lei and a group of Macao artists to create the city’s first Chamber opera – “A Dream of Fragancy” – a fictional account of Tang’s visit here.

The one-hour opera will be performed three times in mid-October during the 30th Macao International Music Festival at the Dom Pedro V Theatre, which seats around 200. After the two scheduled performances were sold out within a week, the troupe decided to stage a third one, to meet public demand. It will be performed in Mandarin, with subtitles in Chinese, Portuguese and English.

“Tang was in my mind from an early age,” said Lei, the author. “From my childhood, my father took me to see his works, in different dialects of Chinese. I saw them on the stage and in the movies. He was the first great Chinese playwright to visit Macao. So the idea came to my mind to write something to commemorate the 400th anniversary of his death and something responding to Tang’s works.”

This year China is celebrating Tang by holding an exhibition of his works and those of William Shakespeare in 26 venues of the Chinese Cultural Centre around the world from September to December. Similarly, Britain is organising many events across the world to celebrate Shakespeare’s anniversary.

“We have no details of Tang’s visit to Macao. In the opera, we assume it was three days. It is entirely fictional, although the background is real,” said Lei.

In the opera, Tang meets a Portuguese lady named Maria who agrees to be his guide during his visit. She shows him the sights of the city, including St Anthony’s Church, A-Ma temple, a flea market, ‘Largo do Lilau’ and ‘Praça de Luís de Camões.’

“Tang is very curious, about the customs of the city and Jesus who sacrificed himself for other people. He and Maria develop a warm friendship. It is very ambiguous – not love, but a fusion of love and friendship. Tang has a wife at home, while Maria has a boyfriend in Portugal to whom she is devoted. When she finally comes to see him off at the A-Ma temple, he hides his feelings for her,” said Lei.

“One things that struck Tang very much in Macao is how the Portuguese express emotions to each other – kissing and holding hands. At that time, Chinese men and women had to keep a distance; they could not even shake hands,” he added.

Xia Xianhai, who is a music teacher in real life, plays Tang. “It took me four months to learn the part. It was very hard to master it,” he said. “Now I have, I feel it is very beautiful and moves people.” Since he has a full-time job, he could only rehearse in the evenings.

Director Tam Chi Chun said that dreams were a common theme in Tang’s work. “We use this also. In the first act, we use smoke to make it feel like a dream. As the smoke fades, Macao appears. In this work, the performers are not singing popular music but opera. Not so many people in Macao can do that.

“In his time, Tang was a pioneer in romantic themes. The women in his operas dared to express their love. That was daring at the time,” Tam added.

Many artists in Macao contributed to the play, including Liu Chenchen who composed the music and Un Sio San who wrote the lyrics.

Tang himself had a dramatic life. He was born in September 1550 in Linchuan, Jiangxi province, into a family of senior officials. An excellent student, he failed several times in the exams to enter the government; but he passed finally in 1583, at the age of 33, and was assigned to a post in Nanjing, capital of the Ming dynasty.

In 1591, he wrote a report criticising failings in the government and calling for action against those responsible. This greatly angered the Emperor, who banished him to a humble post in Xuwen County near Zhanjiang city in Guangdong.

It was en route to Xuwen that he visited Macao in late November or early December 1591. Later he was appointed to a post in Suichang County in Zhejiang. A diligent and honest official, he could not tolerate the corruption around him and, in 1598, resigned from the government and returned to live in his native Linchuan. There he devoted himself to writing and literary pursuits and writing until his death in 1616.

Macao appeared in one of his most famous operas “The Peony Pavilion,” which was first performed in 1598 and became one of the most popular dramas of the Ming dynasty. It has 55 scenes and can run for up to 22 hours.

The Suzhou Kunju Opera Theatre performed it in Britain from September 24 to October 4 this year, as part of the 400th anniversary celebrations.

Tang composed more than 2,000 poems and essays in addition to his operas. Dreams are a characteristic of the plays; they enable Tang to introduce themes and settings that are not realistic and in which he can express the full range of emotions.

Lei said that dreams were one of the four elements he used in writing “Dreams of Fragrancy,” together with the Peony Pavilion, passion and poems about Macao.

“Many outstanding Macao creative people took part in the writing. The city’s first original opera remembers the voyage of Tang Xian-zu to Macao and is a mark of respect to this outstanding Chinese dramatist,” he said. (By Mark O’Neill, photo by António Sanmarful)