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Verdi the high note for opera fans
By Li Anlan

Around the world, this will be a year of Wagner and Verdi who were both born 200 years ago in 1813, and Western opera lovers in Shanghai will get an earful.

Operas, opera concerts and excerpts from Verdi, as well as Wagner, will be performed in the city, when the opera season begins in September.

The emphasis will be on Verdi and other Italian composers such as Puccini.

For Chinese music lovers, Verdi is far better known and more popular than ponderous Wagner, whose "Ring Cycle" can take 16 hours to perform over four days. The Italian stories are more accessible and romantic, the music lighter and the arias more memorable for them.

Among Italian operas, Verdi's "La Traviata,' "Il Trovatore," "Rigoletto" and "Aida" are famous, as well as Puccini's "La Boheme." Opera concerts, without full operatic staging, and excerpts are popular.

Earlier this month, the Shanghai Oriental Symphony Orchestra staged "La Traviata," with a cast of both Chinese singers and European guest artists.

"The Chinese pay attention to the stories, and Verdi's operas feel relatively close," says Tao Xin, a professor at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. "Some plots reflect the fight for freedom and Verdi also paid attention to disadvantaged groups."

Verdi was one of the earliest composers to insist on matching plots and singing talents. He worked closely with librettists and made sure the music, drama and characters worked together.

On Thursday, the Shanghai Oriental Art Center announced the opening performances of its 2013-14 season starting in September. The early announcement is expected to attract a larger audience and allow people to plan ahead.

On September 6, a selection conducted by Luca Verdone will feature Mascagni's "Cavalleria Rusticana" and Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci."

On September 7, a celebration concert of Verdi's selected works, including excerpts and arias from "Rigoletto," "Il Trovatore," "Aida" and "Un Ballo in Maschera" ("The Masked Ball") will be staged.

Both concerts are cooperations between the Shanghai Oriental Art Center and Italy's Teatro Massimo Bellini in Sicily. They will feature all-Italian casts, including tenors Marcello Giordani and Rubens Pelizzari, sopranos Giuseppina Piunti and Cellia Costea, baritone Silvio Zanon, and mezzo soprano Gabriella Colecchia.

Coproductions are becoming a trend and some opera productions this year will be staged in both Shanghai and in Europe.

Professor Tao, said coproductions can quickly improve the level of opera productions in China.

"We have world-class singers and the coproductions provide opportunities for Western producers to recognize and get to know our talents," Tao says.

The opening of Shanghai opera season increasingly attracts prestigious opera companies and orchestras as well as more opera lovers.

Though not many operas and opera concerts are performed in Shanghai, this anniversary year for Verdi and Wagner will see more performances and theatergoers, says Lin Hongming, manager of the Shanghai Oriental Art Center.

"We usually announce the opening programs in July, and this year we are doing it differently, revealing the performances before everything is scheduled," Lin said.

Xu Zhong, the artistic director of both Shanghai Oriental Symphony Orchestra and Teatro Massimo Bellini, says both theaters have dedicated themselves to the cooperation. The cast is carefully selected not only for singing talent, but also for stage personas that suit the opera characters.

Xu is the first Asian musician to serve as the artistic director of an Italian theater.

"Perhaps my 'double identity' has made the communication much easier," he says. "We will prepare in the summer and be ready to present the best performance to the Shanghai audience in the fall."

Xu will conduct the orchestra of the Teatro Massimo Bellini at the Verdi celebration concert of two performances, including the 80-person choir of the Italian opera theater.

"The performances in September are the first step in cooperation, we are proud and honored to have our theater represent Italian music in China," says Rita Gari Cinquegrana, manager of Teatro Massimo Bellini.

The Shanghai Oriental Art Center will present a number of well-known operas.

In November, a lesser-known Verdi opera "Attila" ("Attila the Hun") will be fully staged at the renovated Shanghai Grand Theater in a cooperation with the Palace of Arts in Budapest, Hungary.

The story of "Attila," the fifth century king of the Huns who almost captured Rome, is set in the Italian city of Aquileia, which Attila has just taken in a brutal conquest. His prisoner, the beautiful Odabella, has sworn to avenge the death of her father, who was killed by the invaders. Roman envoy Ezio urges Attila, "You may have the universe, but let Italy remain mine." Attila rejects the idea and, despite a warning in his dream to turn back, he advances on Rome where he is defeated in battle. Odabella then stabs him with the sword he has given her as a gift.

The cast will feature Giacomo Prestia as Attila, Gabriele Viviani as Ezio and Csilla Boros from Hungary as Odabella.

Prestia, a bass, has cooperated in productions with conductors Zubin Mehta, Claudio Abbado, Ricard Muti and Daniel Barenboim.

On April 28, the concert version will premiere at the Palace of Arts in Budapest.

"This cooperation is quite dramatic itself, and it is similar to our cooperation for 'La Boheme'," says Zhang Zhe, president of the Shanghai Grand Theater Arts Center. That opera last October was a coproduction with the Salzburg Music Festival.

Coproduction with foreign opera companies enriches the performances, lifts the level of Chinese opera and production and lowers costs.

The Chinese cast for "Attila" has not been announced.

"'Attila' is not often staged and we would like to take this opportunity to make it better known around the world," says Csaba Kael, manager of the Palace of Arts in Budapest.

Verdi and Wagner

Besides the major productions of Verdi's operas, opera concerts and excerpts will also be staged. Wagner is also on the program.

Concert opera "Rigoletto"

(Shanghai Symphony Orchestra)

Date: February 24, 7:30pm

Venue: Shanghai Oriental Art Center

Address: 425 Dingxiang Rd

Tickets: 60-480 yuan

Verdi celebration concert

(Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra)

Date: March 30, 7:30pm

Venue: Shanghai Oriental Art Center

Address: 425 Dingxiang Rd

Tickets: 50-380 yuan

Selections from "La Traviata," "Rigoletto," "Nabucco," "Aida"

Ildiko Komlosi sings Verdi. Hungarian mezzo soprano Ildiko Komlosi sings selected arias.

Date: March 31, 7:30pm

Venue: Shanghai Concert Hall

Address: 523 Yan'an Rd E.

Tickets: 60-480 yuan

Wagner anthology

(Shanghai Symphony Orchestra)

Selections from "Rienzi, "Lohengrin," "Parisifal," "Die Walkure"

Date: April 5, 7:30pm

Venue: Shanghai Concert Hall

Address: 523 Yan'an Rd E.

Tickets: 60-480 yuan

Wagner 'Ring' Excerpts

(Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra)

Date: May 25, 7:30pm

Venue: Shanghai Oriental Art Center

Address: 425 Dingxiang Rd

Tickets: 50-380 yuan

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