THE love tragedy of Jia Baoyu and Lin Daiyu in Cao Xueqin’s “The Dream of Red Mansions” is considered one of China’s four great classic novels.
Although various adaptations have been made through the years, “The Dream of Red Mansions — Music Legend” is something completely different. A symphony and various forms of traditional opera will be used to tell the tragic love story of a fairy who descends to the human world with an immortal. Both are reborn into prominent families and fall in love before difficulties ensue.
The concert to be presented at Shanghai Symphony Hall is part of the 6th Cao Xueqin Culture and Arts Festival, a nationwide commemoration of the 300th anniversary of Cao’s birth. Other events include stage performances, art exhibitions and lectures throughout the year.
Cao wrote “The Dream of Red Mansions” in the 18th century and it has remained one of the most well-known literary classics for Chinese — similar to the enduring hold of William Shakespeare’s plays among English readers.
According to the recent 12th National Research on Reading Habits, about 6.5 percent of Chinese keep a printed version of “The Dream of Red Mansions” at home. About 67.5 percent has been exposed to the story, including through spin-offs such as the movie, television series, traditional operas, paintings and comics. Of those, about 72 percent had their first encounter with the classic before middle school.
Cai Donghua, conductor and creator of the concert, says creating something based on “Red Mansions” is risky since so many people have preconceived ideas about the story.
“The original version is so deeply rooted among Chinese that trying to duplicate it is pointless,” he says. “We expect our concert to be a different interpretation through music, just like new wine made from an ancient recipe.”
All 17 songs in the concert are based on composer Wang Liping’s creations for the 1987 TV series of the same name. Cai says the songs have been enriched with new interpretations through the participation of artists like soprano Chen Xiaoduo, Peking Opera actress Shi Yihong and musicians form the Shanghai Gufan Symphony Orchestra.
Shi says interpreting “Red Mansions” through Peking Opera is difficult. “The romance in the ‘Red Mansions’ is usually expected to be tender and gentle, whereas Peking Opera is often labeled with a tough singing style,” says Shi, who will sing “Wang Ning Mei” (“Cry in Vain”) at the concert. “It wouldn’t sound good if I simply sing the gentle songs with the aria of Beijing opera.”
Peking Opera composer Jin Guoxian was invited to help adapt the song and ensure it retains the original charm.
Jiang Jinqxian, founder of Hong Mi Hui or the Red Mansions Fan Club which was launched a year ago with 11 branches across the country, says the 1987 television series introduced the classic to many who were unaware of the novel.
“The 1987 TV series played a very important role in popularizing the great work,” Jiang says. “Many Chinese today, including myself, first became interested in the work due to the TV series, and the songs left a strong imprint on many viewers.”
The concert to be staged in Shanghai is the third version of conductor Cai’s work based on the literary masterpiece, with the previous two labeled as drama and opera versions.
Cai says his affinity for classical gardens is another reason he is so attracted to “Red Mansions,” which has numerous scenes in Da Guan Yuan, or Grand View Garden.
“Da Guan Yuan is like a retreat away from the world that protects the innocent romance of the teenagers from the ugly adult world, though it collapses in the end,” says Cai. “It will be such a great journey for a grown-up like me to experience that innocent world once again, even in the form of music.”
As one of the four famous novels in Chinese history, “Red Mansions” has provided inspirations to Chinese artists over the years. Those creations have helped popularize the classic and keep it alive among younger generations.
While Yueju Opera, Kunqu Opera and television adaptations tend to be faithful to the original work, an increasing number of contemporary works offer new interpretations of the novel.
Chinese contemporary choreographer Zhao Liang’s “Jing Huan Jue” (“The Dream of Zen”) was staged last summer in Shanghai, illustrating his understanding of the book in terms of desire, dreams and reality. Hong Kong drama director Edward Lam’s new work “What is Sex?,” to be staged at Shanghai Culture Square on November 6-8, is loosely based on “Red Mansions” and features a group of men making observations about the fate of women.
While the 12 male entertainers amuse their female guests by telling the story of “The Dream of Red Mansions,” they end up relating to both the book’s male and female characters. Numerous phrases from the book are used verbatim in the drama although the stories are modernized.
“Reliance and control, as the two features of babies in the oral and anal stages of Freud’s psychosexual theory, are still widely used by many adults in managing their lives and relationships even though they have physically grown up. The more they rely on their partners, the more they want to control, which always leads them to endless anxiousness,” Lam says.
“Observing all the features of reliance and control, Cao recorded and described them in ‘The Dream of Red Mansions,’ leaving us to figure out what will happen when we pass these stages and grow up,” he explains.
Though written more than 200 years ago, “Red Mansions” resonates with modern people and their lives, Lam says.
He especially loves the part of the story when deceased Qin Keqing appears in the dream of Wang Xifeng, who now runs the family. Qin suggests Wang develop family land for agriculture and set up schools so family members could thrive regardless of unforeseen events. She also tells Wang a big auspicious event would happen to the family in the near future.
“‘What will the auspicious event be?’ is a sentence that appears repeatedly in my drama to remind the audience of their similarity to Wang,” Lam says.
“I see Wang as a very typical modern person who is smart and capable, yet short-sighted. These people are always obsessed with being a few steps ahead, while turning a blind eye to the future. It seems that it would be good for us to look further into the distance,” he adds.
What makes “The Dream of Red Mansions” relevant today is that it isn’t merely a love story.
“It is more like an encyclopedia in which everybody can find his or her own interests,” says Jiang, the club founder who adds many fans of the novel have used the book as a launch pad into doing their own research into tea, dresses, incense burning, cuisine and health maintenance. Fans even get together for reading and tea parties to exchange their thoughts on the classic.
“Reading the text isn’t the only way to appreciate the great work,” Jiang says. “It is always interesting to find new ways for the classic to serve our lives.”