Staging a love story
Actors Jia Fan and Zhang Huifang (right) in a scene from the Chinese version of the Russian musical Anna Karenina in Beijing on Sept 30. [PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY]
In 2019, when stage producer Zhang Nianxian traveled to Moscow to meet her business partners to discuss future projects of bringing Russian classical musicians to perform in China, she was invited to watch an original Russian musical, Anna Karenina, adapted from Leo Tolstoy's iconic novel.
While Zhang has been involved in the classical music scene in China for decades, she had not watched many musicals.
"I had watched a few classic musical productions, such as the French musical Les Miserables and Broadway's The Phantom of the Opera, so when I watched Anna Karenina in Moscow for the first time, I was immediately captivated," says Zhang. "Everything about the musical, such as its music, choreography, spectacular stage sets and costumes, impressed me. I wanted to bring it to China."
However, the plan was canceled due to the COVID-19 outbreak shortly after Zhang returned to her home country. Zhang was disappointed but the idea of introducing the Russian musical to Chinese audience still lingered in her head.
Over a year ago, she decided to produce a Chinese version of Anna Karenina.
Despite the difficulties caused by the ongoing pandemic, the Chinese version of the musical, also titled Anna Karenina, premiered at Shanghai Grand Theatre on Saturday, and will tour 10 other cities, including Hangzhou in Zhejiang province, Guangzhou in Guangdong province, and Beijing, through December.
"When we started producing the musical, it was very challenging, much harder than we had expected," says Zhang. "We did auditions online and our communication with the creative team of the musical in Russia was also conducted online. Trainings and rehearsals were postponed over and over again. It was the most difficult project I've ever been involved in."
Directed by Alina Chevik and choreographed by Irina Korneeva, the Russian musical premiered in 2016 at Moscow's Operetta Theater, with a score by Roman Ignatyev and a libretto by Yuliy Kim.
The musical follows the dramatic and ill-fated love story between the married Anna Karenina and a dashing military officer, Alexey Vronsky. The characters struggle with love and betrayal, passion and duty, hope and desperation.
"We come from different cultural backgrounds, we think in different ways and we understand things differently. The musical brings us together due to a mutual appreciation of the novel Anna Karenina. We worked very hard together for the same goal," said choreographer Korneeva in a video during the media event on Sept 30 in Beijing, offering a preview of the musical.
Liu Wenfei, a veteran researcher, writer and translator, who is president of the China Association of Russian Literature Research, has translated the musical for Chinese script and lyrics.
"Some 145 years have passed since the classic novel was published. It has a timeless quality. Sharing the Russian musical with our audience (in China) is an invaluable tool for teaching Russian history and culture," says Liu, who was presented the "Order of Friendship" medal by Russia in 2015 for his translation into Chinese of many Russian literary works.
"We stayed loyal to the original meaning of the songs in the Russian musical. At the same time, we tried to find the right words in Chinese to go with the melodies," says Liu, adding that he spent a whole year working on the translation.
Anna Karenina has important scenes that take place inside trains and at stations, which also gives the audience a sense of how the storyline moves.
"Turning the famous Russian writer's masterpiece into a two-hour musical was not easy. We have nearly 50 actors and actresses in the Chinese version, as well as 16 ballet dancers and eight choral singers. It is a big production and we worked with our Russian partners to keep it authentic," says Lei Yue, who works as the Chinese director of the musical.
Lei studied theater directing in Moscow for about four years, where she gained a deeper understanding of Russian literature, music, dance and arts.
The market for musicals in China has potential, with many popular Western musicals presented in the country and Chinese producers attempting to widen their reach by staging Mandarin productions of some such shows.
In 2018, the hit reality show, Super Vocal, produced by Hunan Satellite TV, successfully propelled classically trained Chinese singers, some of whom are musical performers, into stardom. Chinese bass-baritone singers Hong Zhiguang and Jia Fan are among those who gained a large fan base after appearing on the show. They will play the role of Vronsky in the Chinese musical Anna Karenina. Li-Tong Hsu and Zhang Huifang will play the role of Anna Karenina.
"One of my favorite scenes in the musical is when Anna meets Vronsky for the first time. It is the moment they fall for each other, and like the fast moving train, their relationship goes at a speed far beyond their control," says Hong, who was trained at China Conservatory of Music and later went to New York to study at the Mannes School of Music for a master's degree in 2014 and for an artist diploma from the Yale School of Music in 2016.
"I love the three-minute lullaby that Anna sings to her son. The song is unaccompanied," says Zhang Huifang. "Her love affair with Vronsky is passionate but, ultimately, Anna cannot enjoy it because she feels guilty, especially for her young son."
A string orchestra will give a live performance in the musical, which has over 40 catchy songs and features a wide range of music genres, such as pop, rock, and operatic style.
"The audience may well be humming some of the songs to themselves after watching the musical," Lei says.
The choreography also covers different styles, such as classical ballet and contemporary dance. Lei adds that paying tribute to the great writer, a Russian song from the musical was kept in the Chinese version and that will be performed by Chinese actors and actresses in Russian.
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