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Raise the red standard (3)

By Liao Danlin (Global Times)

10:44, January 08, 2013

"The question for us is where and how to find the balance to make the combination of Chinese and Western beautiful and on-the-point," said Zhou.

Red Lantern tells a story of women in the 1920s. Unlike other educated young women in China who are able to pursue their own happiness, Songlian is pushed into becoming an rich businessman's fourth wife. The sad marriage and the dysfunctional relationships that degenerate in this house eventually lead to a dramatic and tragic end.

"There is a Peking Opera performer, educated students, and a number of representative characters in the story. It is a time when old and new [cultures] clash and that's where the drama and music lie," said Zhou.

Red Lantern tries to find a modern way to present traditional Chinese musical elements and combine the styles in a way that fits into the audiences' general understanding of musicals.

The writer of the musical's libretto, Peng Feng, is also a professor from Peking University. He finds the story different from most musicals Chinese audiences are familiar with. "It is not romantic. It's a bit dark and complicated," Peng said.

His first priority was to lay out the structure of the music portions of the script, considering how many songs were needed, how long each should be and in what form: solo, duet or chorus.

The story itself and the characters belong to last century, but the complex power of the relationships engulfing each character is comparable to people's lives today. The mix of conflicts in a time of transition and an unchanging human nature help to build strong connections with today's audience.

Academia and the market

Musicals anywhere still play to a relatively niche market. Tickets are generally expensive, and the number of talented professionals is limited. These factors, currently magnified here in China, are obstacles to the development of Chinese musicals.

On the bright side, the Chinese versions of Cats and Mamma Mia! may not be original creations, but they do bring the audience to the theater and present the art form in all its splendor.

The creative team of Red Lantern includes scholars who have experience in the industry. As the director, Zhou told the Global Times she only invites professionals: they not only perform but also teach. "How should we make our studies valuable? It should not only be conferences one after another," said Zhou. She hopes production and research can work together to change the situation of Chinese musicals.

Peng's suggestion is to go small and big at the same time. Low and middle-budget experimental productions help to gain experience and solve problems. Also, only after the development of a large number of high-quality shows with "legs" - that is, they attract audiences for extended runs - will musicals qualify as a domestic industry.

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