China's original opera productions

Rickshaw Boy

Updated: Feb 2, 2021 Print
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Rickshaw Boy

World premiere in June 2014
By the National Center for Performing Arts (NCPA)

Composer: Guo Wenjing
Libretto: Xu Ying
Conductor: Zhang Guoyong
Director/Set design: Yi Liming
Costume and make up design: A Kuan
Lighting design: Wang Qi
Choir: NCPA Chorus
Orchestra: NCPA Orchestra

The poster of the opera Rickshaw Boy [Photos/]

The first opera to be adapted by the NCPA from a work of modern literature, Rickshaw Boy maintains the essence of the eponymous novel, captures the atmosphere of Beijing during the 1920s, and also pays homage to this great work and its author Lao She (1899-1966), a Chinese national literary giant.

Comprising eight acts, the opera tells the sad story of Xiangzi, a rickshaw boy who dreams of running his own firm. His rickshaw, however, which he bought with money saved up over three years, gets stolen by mutinous soldiers, so he has to work for Liu Siye again and be harassed by Liu’s daughter, Huniu.

Stage photo of Xiangzi, the protagonist

Xiangzi leaves Liu’s firm and works for Mr Cao, but still can’t get rid of Huniu. Misfortunes never come alone; his is skinned of all his money by detective Sun then forced to get married to Huniu. After a short period of peaceful married life, Xiangzi has to sell his newly-bought rickshaw again to arrange the funeral of Huniu, who died in childbirth. This is followed by the suicide of his beloved, Xiao Fuzi. Becoming utterly disheartened, Xiangzi sleepwalks through his days, not the honest and optimistic young country boy any more.

Huniu on her wedding night

Following the pattern of a grand Wagner opera, this work employs a holistic and dominant musical model that strongly signals plot movements as well as interactions between roles and between actors and audiences -devices which are rarely seen in domestic works.

In addition to the elaborate stage design, its music and major arias also successfully highlight the national character. First of all, the colloquial musical language adds a distinct Beijing style to the work, especially the recitative, in the local dialect, which presenting a busy city life using the successful integration of the four Chinese tones and opera tunes.

A peek at the scenes of life in old Beijing

Elements of Chinese folk music, additionally, are employed to perfect this effect. Instruments such as suona and three-string fiddle are added to its symphonic music, while performing arts including Jingyun Dagu (story-telling in the Beijing dialect with drum accompaniment), Hebei Clapper Opera, Hebei folk songs, danxianr (story-telling to musical accompaniment by another person and a drum) also shine brilliantly, and help to compose the sad melodies of the major roles with opera bel canto. For instance, the aria of Xiao Fuzi is created through an operatic adaption of the famous Hebei folk song Xiaobaicai, whose sad and mild characters echo with the theme of the play; and the chorus The City Beijing uses the rhyme of a famous repertoire of Jingyun Dagu to depict the gloomy air of this sad story.

Lively streetscape of old Beijing


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