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NCPA Children’s Opera Commission
A Story About Growing Up
A Story About Growing Up is a newly commissioned opera work adapted from a Chinese fairy tale carrying the same name. (also known as The Fool and the Unhappy Boy, Dopey and Grumpy, and Scatterbrain and Crosspatch) It was written and published by Mr. REN Rongrong in 1956, a celebrated Chinese translator and writer of children’s literature. Delivered in a humorous tone, the story features engaging jokes that convey meaningful lessons. It is recognized as a beacon in classic Chinese children’s humorous literature and was adapted into a cartoon of the same name by Shanghai Animation Film Studio in 1962.
Introduction of the Opera
A Story About Growing Up is the NCPA’s fourth children’s opera commission, adapted from a Chinese fairy tale carrying the same name. (also known as The Fool and the Unhappy Boy, Dopey and Grumpy, and Scatterbrain and Crosspatch). It was written and published by Mr. REN Rongrong in 1956, a celebrated Chinese translator and writer of children’s literature. The funny, lively, and thought-provoking fable focuses on two children, one being careless, called “the Fool,” and the other petulant and bad-tempered, called “the Unhappy Boy.” They used to shrug off their foibles. However, after a dreamlike time travel, they realize that even a seemingly minor wicked deed may have dire consequences. It has been more than six decades since the two children first embarked on their magical adventure, which has not only made the story a classic in the history of Chinese children’s literature but also a story shared and loved by generations of people.
Since 2015, the NCPA has been making new explorations in the genre of children’s opera and has launched three widely acclaimed commissions: The Fisherman and the Goldfish, Effendi, and Snow White. In 2018, the NCPA invited outstanding new-generation artists to bring the well-known characters of the Fool and the Unhappy Boy onto the opera stage for the first time, creating a children’s comic opera showcasing the characteristics of Beijing to pay tribute to this classic story. Through this opera work, young audiences can appreciate the charm of operas in a relaxing and cheerful atmosphere, perceiving “the true, the goodness, and the beauty” in all, and passing on the positive energy. In 2019, the NCPA reunited the original production team and cast members to polish the opera work to present a perfected version of this children’s opera classic to the audience.
Scene 1: The Bad Habits of the Fool and the Unhappy Boy
Both the Fool and the Unhappy Boy have weaknesses. The Fool is careless and forgetful; the Unhappy Boy holds no discretion in his temperament, and he times it ill.
During a choir rehearsal, the Unhappy Boy insists on singing in a different tone from everyone else, which vexes the teacher. Whereas the Fool turns his home upside down, looking for his workbook in a mess. Those who know the two children are worried about them and kindly ask them to think about their future life in their regards. Instead of taking people’s advice, neither of the children takes their weaknesses seriously, and they believe that things will turn out just fine when they’re adults.
The alarm clock with magical powers opens the Door of Time for them, turning them into grown-ups in the blink of an eye.
Scene 2: The Joy of Growing Up
The Fool and the Unhappy Boy wake up to find themselves grown-ups overnight. The Fool is now an architect, and the Unhappy Boy is a Peking Opera actor. The Fool has designed the world’s tallest building - the One-Thousand-Floor Tower (which only has 999 floors after its completion due to a miscount by the Fool). In the theater on the top floor of that building, the Unhappy Boy will play the tiger in a Peking Opera play, WU Song Fights the Tiger.
Scene 3: The Nine-Hundred-and-Ninety-Nine-and-a-Half-Floor Tower
Full of anticipation, the Fool, who is on his way to the theater to enjoy the performance of the Unhappy Boy, only finds that audiences are trudging their way step by step to get to the top floor and panting under the weight of their backpacks bulged with food for the long journey. Only then does the Fool realize that he forgot to include elevators in his design of the tallest building in the world! He receives ridicule and blame from exhausted audiences for his carelessness.
Scene 4: The Tiger Fights WU Song
On the stage, the Unhappy Boy is unwilling to follow the script and once again lets his temper overwhelm him. He will not have WU Song kill the tiger, namely, him. On the contrary, he wants the tiger to be the hero and he beats WU song so badly that he even ruins the stage settings.
After that, the Fool and the Unhappy Boy finally realize their foibles and hope to travel back to their childhood to get things right.
The alarm clock once again uses its magical powers and sends the two boys back to their childhood. The two decide to start over and strive to be a better version of themselves with a down-to-earth attitude.
1. Background: Since The Fool and the Unhappy Boy was first published in the magazine Juvenile’s Literature in 1956, it has become a much beloved classic Chinese children’s literature work. In 1962, it was adapted into a cartoon of the same name by Shanghai Animation Film Studio. In 2017, it was selected as the recommended reading material in the “Happy Reading Hour” section of the Chinese language textbook for second-grade students. Therefore, the play has a truly huge audience base including adults and children. Since the story’s lessons and theme are timeless, all audiences, old and young, can relate to it.
2. Music: The composer of the opera is ZHANG Yixin, who obtained a doctoral degree at the Central Conservatory of Music under the mentorship of the renowned composer HAO Weiya. ZHANG Yixin once arranged the music for Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice produced by the NCPA. The music of The Fool and the Unhappy Boy features a cheerful rhythm and a multi-layered structure with a strong comedic vibe. Elements from classic children’s songs, Finding Friends and Dropping the Handkerchief, were skillfully fused into the music to make the opera work resonate with Chinese audiences. In the part of WU Song Fights the Tiger, the music in the style of “Luogujing” (a traditional notation method used for percussion music of Chinese operas) fully showcases the characteristics of Beijing.
3. Script: HAN Jinguang, the playwright of the original children’s opera Effendi produced by the NCPA, joined forces with the NCPA again. While faithfully basing his adaptation on the story’s original structure, he managed to make the characters vivid and suitable for the opera stage. The lyrics of this opera are simple and easy to understand and convey a particular beauty and subtle humor through its words, making the opera accessible to people of all ages.
4. Production team: Director WANG Bingran from Beijing Children’s Art Theater has extensive experience in creating children’s operas and a deep understanding of children’s psychology and preferences. His play A Flying Dream has won numerous domestic awards. In addition, the set designer ZHANG Wu, costume designer QIN Wenbao, lighting designer WANG Qi, video projection designer HU Tianji, styling designer QI Na, posture guide YU Youxi, audio effect designer LIU Yunfeng, and other talented artists formed a superb team to produce the opera adaptation of The Fool and the Unhappy Boy and continue to share this captivating story to many more.
NCPA New Production
Puccini’s Opera Gianni Schicchi
Gianni Schicchi is a one-act comic opera composed by Giacomo Puccini on April 20, 1918, and usually performed in a triptych (Il Trittico) together with Il Tabarro (The Cloak) and Suor Angelica (Sister Angelica). The story of the opera is derived from just a few lines in the 30th canto of Inferno of The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, which depict the will forger Gianni Schicchi. Gianni Schicchi is regarded as the “most Italian” one of the triptych, not only because the story takes place in Florence, but, more importantly, the music overbrims with Mediterranean vitality and energy. Puccini infused his personal style into the comic opera, making it the only comic opera in his oeuvre.
Introduction of the Opera
Gianni Schicchi, a one-act comic opera composed by Giacomo Puccini on April 20, 1918, is part of his Il Trittico (The Triptych), which also includes Il Tabarro (The Cloak) (1917) and Suor Angelica (Sister Angelica) (1916). The triptych represents the three fundamental characteristics of Puccini’s works: tragic, lyrical, and witty. Set in three different eras and regional backgrounds, the triptych starts with the brutally realistic Il Tabarro, followed by its gentle and lyrical opposite Suor Angelica, and concludes with the distinctly “Italian comedy” of Gianni Schicchi, with which Puccini realized his long-standing wish to create a comedy, making it an outlier among his rich repertoire of representative works. Many theater-goers found it hard to believe that such a high-quality comedy came from Puccini, which precisely proves Plato’s viewpoint at the end of Symposium: a writer of tragic poems may also compose comic works.
The triptych premiered at New York’s Metropolitan Opera on December 14, 1918, but Puccini did not attend it. The then-director of the opera house sent a congratulatory telegram to Puccini after the premiere: “Huge success. Applause at the end of each opera, with 40 curtain calls. Especially fervent for Gianni Schicchi.” In the past hundred years or so, Gianni Schicchi has indeed been the most popular one in the triptych. It is often performed independently or with one-act plays or ballets by other composers.
In terms of its music, Gianni Schicchi can be considered Puccini’s purest and most whimsically brilliant masterpiece, fully revealing the composer’s playful nature. It is delicately and densely layered in musical composition and full of dynamic and pithy dialogues, constituting a series of endlessly intriguing fantasias. The details are rich in comparisons and contrasts, reflecting the real life of the small landowner class in Italy as was perceived by Puccini.
From a dramatic perspective, Gianni Schicchi achieves a perfect unity of operatic literature, narrative structure, and comedy, making it a classic in the history of Italian opera and the pinnacle of Puccini’s operatic creativity. From the beginning to the end of the play, the ten-plus characters hardly ever go off the stage, and all the ups and downs of the plot are masterfully weaved into the music as the characters shout, discuss, hurl insults, and howl, feigning sorrow and disappointment out of their greed for Buoso Donati’s wealth and descending into a rage and losing control of themselves when they can’t get what they want. While the comedic elements in the music are unmistakable, they diminish not a bit the nobility and elegance inherent in Puccini’s music. That’s exactly why Gianni Schicchi, the protagonist who is a common man, is endowed with a rare individuality and dignity.
The 2021 NCPA edition of Gianni Schicchi is an orchestra reproduction after the piano version for small theaters debuted in 2010. The energetic and youthful production team of the NCPA crafted a new visual presentation for the stage of a drama theater. Director WU Yin and young designer ZHANG Kunpeng, together with their colleagues, have fully tapped into the valuable resources of the NCPA accumulated from over a decade of opera productions. They are bold to innovate while staying true to what makes classic works timeless. Their ingenious ideas take advantage of the unique features of the drama theater stage and the rewarding experience of their deep involvement in opera productions at the NCPA over the years.
The famous Florentine magnate, Buoso Donati, has passed away, and his greedy relatives rush to his house, hoping to get their hands on his estate. To their surprise and disappointment, Donati has left a will to donate all his possessions to the church. Rinuccio, the nephew of Zita, a cousin of Buoso Donati, is deeply in love with Lauretta, the daughter of Gianni Schicchi. However, the Donati family strongly opposes their union because Lauretta cannot provide a substantial dowry. Rinuccio brings in the resourceful Schicchi for help, while Lauretta pleads with her father with the song O Mio Babbino Caro (Oh My Dear Dad). Gianni Schicchi claims that Donati has had a sudden revival, and disguised as the ailing man, he summons a notary to draft a new will. In this will, he leaves parts of Donati’s estate to his relatives but reserves the most valuable assets - the mule, the mills, and the mansion in Florence - for “Donati’s dear friend, Gianni Schicchi,” securing a sizable dowry for his daughter. With the new notarized will, Schicchi drives away the furious relatives, and Lauretta and Rinuccio finally get together.
The Famous Aria
“O Mio Babbino Caro” - Lauretta
In the best-known aria of this opera, an exceptionally melodious and moving number, Lauretta asks her father for his approval to marry her lover. Its simple and neat tune, with a hint of folk style, might seem out of place in an opera with a turbulent musical atmosphere and absurdly chaotic plot. However, this contrast highlights how the opera’s only innocent character, Lauretta, stands out amidst the greedy and cunning crowd. Despite the unchallenging vocal range and techniques the number involves, its long-standing popularity and the enduring renditions left by generations of renowned sopranos mean that even today’s top singers need extraordinary skills and arrangement to make their versions stand out and receive genuine acclaim.
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