History of China National Opera & Dance Drama Theater

Founded in December 1951, China National Opera & Dance Drama Theater is the largest theater directly under the central government, with the predecessor as Yan’an Lu Xun College of Art. The first dean was the famous musician Zhou Weizhi, and former deans included the dramatist Li Bozhao, the composers Lu Su and Ma Ke, the playwrights Yan Yong and Qiao Yu, the literature and art critic Qu Runmei, the composer Liu Wenjin, the singer Tian Yubin and the performer Lin Wenzeng. The present dean is the musicology doctor Tao Cheng.

Over the past six decades since it was founded, China National Opera & Dance Drama Theater, under the leadership of the said deans and with the efforts from generations of artists, has made constant innovation and taken a path for art development that highlights the national culture and combines refined and popular taste. It has launched more than 100 pieces of great works, among which The White-haired Girl, Xiao Erhei's Marriage, Lotus Lamp, The Dream of Red Chamber, The Dancing Girl of Tongque Platform, Wildness and The Regret for the Past have become classics in China’s opera and dance drama history. Many CPC and Chinese government leaders, including Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping, as well as leaders of foreign states watched the performances on multiple occasions and spoke highly of them.

In recent years, the theatre has produced a series of new masterpieces, such as Red River Valley (opera), Confucius (dance drama) and When We Were Young (dance drama). Dramas like Charm of the Seasons, Wishes from Heaven and Carnival on the Road have become everlasting brands for song and dance shows and won extensive praise from audiences both at home and abroad.

The theater once had a big number of outstanding artists, with the first generation represented by Ma Ke, Qiao Yu, Wang Kun, Guo Lanying, Zhao Qing, Liu Wenjin, Chen Ailian, Wu Yanze, Liu Shiming and Li Yuanhua. The older generations of artists laid the foundation for the development of the theater. In recent years, the theater has launched new masterpieces and trained many young artists such as Xu Peidong, Guan Xia, Wan Shanhong, Han Yanwen, Wen Zhongya, Zhang Hongguang, Jiang Jinyi, Tong Ruirui, Shan Chong, Chen Xiaoduo, Wang Yan, Tang Shiyi and Hu Yang. Excellent young singers include Li Yugang, Li Yu’er, Li Zhentao and Gao Baoli.

The theater has launched touring performances in many foreign countries across the world. In 1951, the opera The White-haired Girl was performed in nine foreign countries including Soviet Union and East Germany; In 1961, the dance dramas Lotus Lamp, Leifeng Tower and The Dagger Society were performed in Soviet Union and Poland, etc. Recent years have seen more frequent foreign exchange activities. In 2014, the theater organized performances in Australia, New Zealand, US, South Korea, Indonesia and Azerbaijan, and some of its performers went to 15 foreign countries, including Canada, Singapore, Spain and Denmark, for cultural exchanges and earned the theater a high reputation. The theater has insisted on telling Chinese stories on the world’s stage, with the aim to inherit and carry forward excellent Chinese culture, spread Chinese spirit to other parts of the world and let the world know more about China. The theater also absorbs excellent art of other countries, contributing to the mutual understanding and friendship between China and the rest of the world.

I. Opera Troupe: Integrating Chinese and western styles and making innovation based on inheritance

The Opera Troupe of China National Opera & Dance Drama Theater is a State-level opera group with the aim to create and perform Chinese operas. The opera The White-haired Girl collectively created by Yan’an Lu Xun College of Art opened a new era for Chinese operas. Combining classical drama traditions and modern drama techniques, the opera boldly drew on both folk tunes and experience of western operas, and created a brand-new form of Chinese opera. In 1945, Mao Zedong, Liu Shaoqi, Zhu De and Zhou Enlai watched the first performance of the opera in the assembly hall of Yan’an Party School of the CPC Central Committee. In 1962, the theater artistically processed the opera, and the performance proved to be a great success. With a strong cast, the unprecedented level of art, the lofty realm of lofty thought and distinctive aesthetic characteristics, the opera was recorded on the first page of China’s opera history, and set the tone for China’s operas. With the unique path and distinct aesthetic form, new operas thus set sail and kept expanding beyond established boundaries. In the subsequent years, the theater offered a number of new operas in the same line as The White-haired Girl, such as Red Leaf River, Liu Hulan, Xiao Erhei's Marriage, The Song Of The Prairie, The Injustice to Dou E and Hong Xia, unleashing the first wave for new operas during 1950s-1960s.    

In the new period, the artists of the theater created and performed operas like Starlight, The Regret for the Past, Gulan Danmu, Wildness and The General’s Affection, leading Chinese operas to another peak during 1980s-1990s. In 1981, to mark the 100th birthday of Lu Xun, the theater created The Regret for the Past, a large-scale opera that well combined Chinese and western operas and reflected the in-depth exploration of operas. The opera Wildness was the result of cooperation between Cao Yu’s daughter Wan Fang and the famous composer Jin Xiang, and was an original large-scale opera first performed by the theater. It based the artistic theme of operas on real life with the strong power of expression and described the fate of the grassroots people in China’s society. The opera created a sensation in the circle right after launched, and was reputed as “one of the most important events in the opera history in the 20th century”. Wildness has become a frequently performed operas of the theater.   

In recent years, the theater has presented a couple of excellent operas, such as Imperial Concubine Yang, The Song of Youth, Red River Valley, Hua Mulan, Jasmine and In That Place Wholly Faraway. In particular, Red River Valley was a great success, and won the Excellent Play Award at the excellent play exhibition by State-level art troupes in 2012 and the 14th Wenhua Award in 2013. Following the rules for western operas and integrating Chinese elements, Red River Valley has been constantly improved and become a classic contemporary opera.

Upholding the philosophy of “highlighting both accumulation and innovation”, the Opera Troupe has kept expanding the scope of themes and made constant innovation based on inheritance of traditions.

II. Dance Drama Troupe: Demonstrating Chinese characteristics with folk dancing

The Dance Drama Troupe of China National Opera & Dance Drama Theater is the earliest State-level Chinese dance drama group at home. In 1957, the theater created the dance drama Lotus Lamp, taking the popular legend onto the stage. The large-scale Chinese dance drama with a strong Chinese style marked the initial shaping of Chinese dance dramas. In 1979, the theater created and first performed the dance drama Princess Wencheng, exploring the expression form of musical dance in the Tang Dynasty and telling the Chinese story through dance. The then Chinese president Hua Guofeng and CPPCC vice chairman the 10th Panchen watched the first performance and spoke highly of it. In 1981, the dance drama The Dream of Red Chamber presented the famous classical work with a Chinese dance drama for the first time. The first performance was highly recognized by national leaders and artists. Xi Zhongxun, the then vice chairman of the standing committee of the NPC, said, “It shows the essence of The Dream of Red Chamber and is quite moving.” In 1987, the dance drama The Dancing Girl of Tongque Platform was first performed at the 1st China Art Festival and caused a stir in the dance circle. Several dances like the Dance on Tray and Drum reshaped the Han style and demonstrated traditional Chinese culture in the form of dance. The Lotus Lamp, Princess Wencheng and The Dancing Girl of Tongque Platform were honored plays among the “20th Century’s Chinese Music Classics”. Over the past six decades, the theater has created and performed a number of premium plays that reflect the Chinese culture, including The Dagger Society, Leifeng Tower, Trilogy on Sadness, Xu Fu, Sacrifice of Youth · Commemoration for Forgotten Thing, Nanjing 1937 and The Shadow of Fence. The dance drama Confucius was newly launched in 2013, with the connotation, structure and figures exquisitely designed. Liu Yandong, Vice Premier of the State Council, said, “It’s really difficult to reproduce Confucius with a dance drama. The dance drama well publicizes the ideas of Confucius, and meets the core socialist values and the traditional virtues of the Chinese people. It’s a great success and reflects the charm of the Chinese culture.” In 2014, the theater created the dance drama When We Were Young, which shows the spirit of the time from the perspective of the great man, and is a piece of work that advocates core socialist values and spreads the positive energy of the society. It joined the “excellent play exhibition in commemoration of the 65th anniversary of the founding of the PRC” as the only dance drama by State-level troupes. 

The Dance Drama Troupe has always striven for perfection and developed a dancing style that’s exclusive to the theater. Expressing abstract culture with concrete dances gives the dancing a unique charm. 

III. Symphony Orchestra: Focusing on unique styles and suiting both refined and popular taste

The Symphony Orchestra of China National Opera & Dance Drama Theater is a State-level symphony orchestra with a history of five decades. The orchestra has accompanied operas including The White-haired Girl, Xiao Erhei's Marriage, The Long March, Liu Hulan, The Regret for the Past and Wildness, dance dramas including Princess Wencheng, Lotus Lamp, The Fish Beauty, The Dancing Girl of Tongque Platform, Leifeng Tower and The Sword, as well as contemporary dance dramas like The Shadow of Fence. It boasts a big number of musicians rich in practical experience. As the famous conductor Seiji Ozawa once said, “It’s a symphony orchestra with rich experience, vitality and mature performance skills.”

The Symphony Orchestra not only provides accompaniment to operas and dance dramas, but also presented a variety of symphony concerts, such as Concert of Famous Chinese and Foreign Melodies, Concert of Strauss Classics, Concert of Mozart Works, Concert of Big-Screen Movies, Concert of Animated Movies and Romantic Concert of Violins and Orchestra. To celebrate the 5th anniversary of Hong Kong's return to the motherland, it launched the special concert of The Step into China’s Dance Dramas in Hong Kong.

The Symphony Orchestra has vigorously expanded the performance market and sought for ways to show its capability on higher platforms. The efforts result in increasing attention and praise from insiders. In 2014, it went abroad twice, launching I Only Care About You – Golden Songs of Teresa Teng Concert successively in New Zealand and Australia and offering local audiences a feast that highlighted refined and popular taste, integrated traditional and modern elements and combined eastern and western music.

At the concert of When East Meets West launched in 2014, the Symphony Orchestra cooperated with one of the world’s three tenors and the famous Spanish singer Placido Domingo, and won his praise. His team said, “We’ve cooperated with Chinese symphony orchestras four times, and this cooperation impresses us most.”

Aimed to “let the people understand, love and support symphonic music”, the Symphony Orchestra has created and performed many easy-to-understand concerts in diverse forms. As part of the national art troupe performance season sponsored by the Ministry of Culture in 2014, the large-scale symphony Dance of The Century gave the audiences fresh feelings by combining percussion music and symphonic music, and was honored the “Excellent Performance Award”. Always keeping up with the times and tapping its unique potential, the Symphony Orchestra has demonstrated a path of exploration for combining symphonic music with Chinese elements. 

IV. Chinese Music Orchestra: Carrying forward traditions and keeping up with the times

The Chinese Music Orchestra of China National Opera & Dance Drama Theater is the first professional Chinese music orchestra established in New China. Over the past decades, it has been providing accompaniment to Chinese operas, including The White-haired Girl, Xiao Erhei's Marriage, The Tale of Huai Yin and The Injustice to Dou E. It has also made classical Chinese melodies a major tool to get closer to the people’s life. In 2005, the large-scale Chinese music concert Past Time, as the first themed Chinese music concert, combined folk music with electronic music and enriched the expression form of folk music. The concert was honored by media as the “best-received concert in recent years”. Themed as patriotism, the large-scale multimedia Chinese symphonic concert The Heroes perfectly combined folk music with Kong Fu movies and TV plays, guiding correct outlook on the nation and the country and increasing the confidence and self-esteem of the Chinese people.

Traditional orchestras are generally compact and flexible. The Chinese Music Orchestra of China National Opera & Dance Drama Theater has adhered to the traditional positioning, and tried to combine traditional art with innovation based on traditional musical forms like Jiangnan sizhu, Xi’an drum music, Fujian nanyin and northern string music. To show diverse musical culture, it launched a small-scale indoor orchestral music concert Treasure of the Country in 2014, inviting several top composers at home including Hong Kong and Taiwan and combining musical forms in different regions and ethnic groups. The concert has also helped the sorting, inheritance, innovation and promotion of intangible cultural heritages.

V. Department of Stage Design – Offering perfect design as powerful support to performances

The Department of Stage Design of China National Opera & Dance Drama Theater has played an important role in state affairs activities and performances over the past years, and provides the most frequent support to the special State-level performances held for leaders of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee. During 1993-2009, it assumed the stage design for the performance at the Lantern Festival Tea Party launched at Zhongnanhai and the Great Hall of the People every 15th day of the first month of Lunar Year; During 2000-2009, it assumed the stage design for the performance at the Spring Festival Tea Party launched for the CPPCC every first day of a year. It has accomplished the jobs successfully and added color to the performances.

The Department of Stage Design also provides the most frequent stage design support to the performances by foreign art troupes who come to China for cultural exchanges or visits. Since the 1980s, it has successively received foreign performance teams from nearly 40 countries including the US, France, Germany, Russia, Italy, Japan, Israel, Korea, Cuba, India, Pakistan and Tanzania.

The Department of Stage Design also provides stage design support to the performances launched by the Party, government, military and social troupes, such as the opening ceremony for the 1st China Art Festival, the opening ceremony of 1990 Asian Games, Asia Cup, Young Singer TV Grand Prix, the special evening party to mark the 100th and 110th birthdays of Mao Zedong at the Great Hall of the People, the performance to mark the 50th anniversary of the victory of the anti-fascist war, the variety show the Ode to Light, the special concert for the US president’s visit to China, the large-scale 1,000-singer chorus Century & World, the large-scale variety show The Ode to Motherland to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the PRC, the large-scale evening part The Ode to Red Flag to mark the 80th anniversary of the founding of the CPC, the large-scale evening party Hello, Deng Xiaoping to mark the 100th birthday of Deng Xiaoping and the performance for the US President Bush’s visit to China. With exquisite design and powerful support, the Department of Stage Design has become an outstanding team with global reputation in the stage design field.

So, China National Opera & Dance Drama Theater is a comprehensive State-level art theater that integrates diverse art categories and has several divisions including the Opera Troupe, the Dance Drama Troupe, the Symphony Orchestra, the Chinese Music Orchestra and the Department of Stage Design. It’s also an art group that leads the tide in various art fields. In particular, the Opera Troupe has become an outstanding leader in the opera field, with almost every piece of work launched as a landmark event in the field.

As the main team with all the older generation of members participating in creation of the large-scale music and dance epic Red in the East, China National Opera & Dance Drama Theater will recreate the music and dance epic that once had significant influence on China’s art history, with the purpose of carrying forward its enduring art spirit, reviewing the rocky road to the revival of China, letting the contemporary people who lose their directions of values keep in mind the past, establish core socialist values and inherit traditions, and filling the contemporary stage with Chinese elements by reshaping the classics.

At the literature and art meeting, Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the CPC Central Committee clearly noted that “people are the inexhaustible source of literature and art creation”. This chartered the course for literature and art work. Proceeding from a new starting point, China National Opera & Dance Drama Theater will keep centering on the people during creation and work to create more excellent works that truly reflect the times and cater to popular taste. Based on inheritance and innovation, it will carry forward the Chinese spirit, gather together the strength of every Chinese people and keep pace with the times. By combining traditional culture and modern ways of communication, it will work to expand the influence of Chinese culture across the world and develop into a State-level art theater that reflects the Chinese characteristics, represents the highest level at home and embodies the cultural image of China.