True Love and Madame Whitesnake

They’ll tell you this new opera is a triumph, seamlessly melding a Chinese folktale with western culture. But they’ll be lying. Once again, the truly Chinese moral at the center of the tale will be twisted to match the Disney, New Age, egocentric western version of love that makes infants of us all.

No doubt Madame White Snake is something to see, definitely hear, even if your exposure to opera came primarily via Warner Brothers’ cartoons. Composer Zhou Long, famous for East-West productions, scored the opera, and philharmonic orchestras backing consummate singers is a musical experience unmatched, even by simultaneous Guitar Hero and KTV.

It ain’t over with any fat lady singing, either. No one but a red carpet diva would call international soprano sensation Huang Ying fat. Curvaceous, maybe…sexy, definitely, and as Madame White Snake herself, mesmerizing. Having a male soprano play her female snake-demon sidekick scores a win for both PC and traditional Chinese opera fans, who yearn for the days when only men could be women – on stage, anyway.

All well and good, but to what end? Those of you who wouldn’t attend opera under any circumstances other than prompted by a shotgun are outnumbered by still-breathing members of the Buster Keaton fan club. No offense, it’s just that opera’s dying, as are most forms of music that appeal to the soul rather than the hips. Not in China, by the by, where ever-growing legions of classical western music lovers plunk down good money to buy what tickets the CCP haven’t commandeered.

Thus we put to you not the question of operatic quality but cultural respect. Why is it that even when we’re trying to give China props, we end up treating her like Rodney Dangerfield? The soul of the issue resides with Creise Lim Jacobs, an American who wrote the libretto for this latest incarnation of Madame White Snake.

“It is one of the most powerful statements ever made about individuality,” Jacobs sound-bites. “The white snake triumphs by her miraculous physical transformation into a woman and by her even-more miraculous psychic transformation by love.” In Jacobs’ playbook, Madame yearns to become human so that she may experience love. Western, Hollywood love, wherein the couple make big googy eyes at each other, have a one-legged kiss, and the curtain falls before the thrill is gone and they break up.

In old China, love was a verb, performed in much tougher actions than a little horizontal dancing and tandem bicycle riding. Make no mistake, the marital fidelity of China’s big-city arrivistes today is just as flimsy as that of western boomers and their progeny. But that only adds weight to the argument that they should have kept the true Chinese soul in Madame White Snake, instead of making it the operatic version of General Tso’s chicken.

You see, in the bona fide Song Dynasty beginning of the story, Mme. White Snake, Bai Su Zhen if you like, is an immortal spirit cast low, doing hard serpent-incarnation time in Hangzhou’s West Lake. She’s been good – good deeds, sacrifice, the Confucian works – for thousands of years, and is so close to human she can shape shift into one at will.

Therefore the ability to feel human emotions like love, and to fall for her beloved scholar Xu Xian, is not fulfillment but a roadblock to her ultimate goal, ascendance to the celestial realm. The earthy joys of falling in love and conjugal bliss are but distractions from the greatest love of all – not Whitney’s, but the one referenced in The Road Less Traveled and other holy writ: selfless commitment and sacrifice.

These are the pillars of traditional Chinese society, as built by Confucius, embodied in the concept of filial piety. The cinematic pulpit, on the other hand, preaches that true love is realized in spurning tradition, family, and society for that mystical physical attraction that makes our eyes twinkle. That’s not love, by the way, that’s cathexis, but this is a free blog, not a paid psychoanalytical service, so we’ll leave it at that. More germane is that any Chinese person listening to this tale (prior to 1980) would know intuitively that such a relationship was doomed from the start.  Never mind the interspecies aspect; their families have never even met, for Guanyin’s sake!

The couple give it their best, of course, and have some happy years – a baby boy, a medicine shop where they treat the poor for free. But Chinese karma inevitably spins against them, in the form of Fa Hai, a monk who brooks no flouting of societal norms, least of all by snake women. In the original tale, hubby Xu Xian will not leave his wife under any circumstances, and the furious monk must resort to magical means to do in Bai Su Zhen. In Madame White Snake, he betrays her, weak creatures that men are, but feels sort of bad about it.

Yet the true story has a happy ending, for those with the wisdom to understand it. Fa Hai entraps Mme. Bai under Lei Feng pagoda, which still stands at Hangzhou’s West Lake.  Her son perseveres, and in the fullness of time wins top rank in the imperial examinations. Better yet, the first thing he does after getting his scholar’s cap is go and pay respect to his mother at the pagoda. That’s the kind of merit that moves the gods themselves, who free Bai Su Zhen and give her what she’s always wanted, not a love life, but a place beside them in the heavens.

No bottom-line loving Hollywood suit would ever green light such an ending, but from a traditionally Chinese standpoint, it’s win-win-win. Fa Hai the monk upholds social order and propriety, the fruit of Bai and Xu’s union proves himself successful, and Bai herself wins the Buddhist sweepstakes. As for romantic love, or shall we say cathexis, it has its uses, but imagine a world where everyone thought such love was the highest good. That Madame White Snake says so makes it western to the core, no matter how much red silk adorns its pretty surface.

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2 Responses to True Love and Madame Whitesnake

  1. Deaner says:

    In the still of the night, does she know what it means to walk to lonely street of dreams?

  2. Ernie says:

    Depends what’s sniffin’ around her door, dependin’ on love’s sweet charity.

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