Datong: The Chinese Utopia (Richmond Theatre)

Datong: The Chinese Utopia (Richmond Theatre, July 27 & 28 2017)

It can’t be often, even for an audience largely consisting of informed people understanding the history and philosophy behind it, that a new opera with radical issues at its heart so easily captivates and inspires.

Datong, the Chinese Utopia, an extraordinary three-act opera by Chan Hing-yan and Evans Chan, received its European premiere at Richmond Theatre as part of the Hong Kong Music Series Festival in London and was a breathtaking work of art. Delegates from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council and the Hong Kong Economic Trade office greeted the mainly Chinese audience in the foyer in addition to others embracing the challenge of something very different and exciting.

The opera tells the enthralling and often witty story of modern China’s first major utopian philosopher and earliest constitutional reformer, Kang Youwei , and his pioneering daughter, Kang Tongbi, from the turn of the 20th Century to the middle of the Cultural Revolution in 1969.

If it doesn’t immediately seem to provide the most suitable topic for turning into opera, then much the same could be said of the life of Eva Peron or the Jerry Springer TV series becoming rock opera/musicals.

Presented by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council and commissioned and produced by Hong Kong Arts Festival, Datong enjoyed a sold-out run in Hong Kong for its 2015 world premiere. The question was would the huge cultural differences make it hard for an English audience to understand, let alone the fact that most of the piece is sung in Mandarin.

It is no surprise to discover that the power of music conquers all, and the entire audience was transfixed by the philosophical and poetic retelling of history, heroism and tragedy. The themes of Confucian ideals, the desire to break away from strict rules and tradition, and the power of liberating individuals to change hearts and minds crossed cultures and made the story as relevant to west London in 2017 as it was to those in China who lived through the events and experienced the fallout of decisions and dreams made by earlier generations.

Passionate direction from Tang Shu-wing was mirrored in stunning performances by the cast. It was hard not to warm to soprano Louise Kwong’s  heartfelt portrayal of the crusading Kang Tongbi, so supportive of her father’s words and actions at home and abroad. Her transformation from the pioneering bright young daughter in the first act to the elderly mother on her deathbed in the last was a triumph of simple make-up and characterisation.

Bass Apollo Wong was magisterial as the revolutionary and visionary Kang Youwei, whose dreams always seemed far ahead of the times, yet he managed to touch minds and give hope, while mezzo-soprano Carol Lin gave a delicious dual star turn as the fierce Empress Dowager and the disenchanted Luo Yifeng, Kang Tongbi’s daughter. Tenor David Quah was also great as a Bible-bashing English missionary and President Theodore Roosevelt, who met with father and daughter to hear their pleas for justice for Chinese workers in the US.

Powerful support was provided from the chorus while, conducted by an enthusiastic Lio Kuokman, the small orchestra set the atmosphere at every stage, from rumbling percussion suggesting storms to come (literally and metaphorically) to the evocative and haunting string sound of the erhu and other huqins. The clever cross culturalism was reinforced in the music at the start of Act 3 with a beautiful saxophone rendition of The Beatles’ Let It Be –Lennon and McCartney would surely have approved of this musical reminder of East meeting West.

For those unfamiliar with the story, the best advice would be to do some research in advance as it would be good to know something of the spirited individuals portrayed and their motivation beforehand.

Datong, the Chinese Utopia was not only thought-provoking and engaging in itself but it must surely pave the way for more western offerings and visits by this talented team of writers and performers.

David Guest

Picture, Kii Studios Photography & Film