THE BLOG
14/11/2013 09:30 GMT | Updated 23/01/2014 18:56 GMT

Why the Genius of Opera Legend Wagner Is Deeply Cherished by the Chinese

When I was child my father, Dato Wong Kee Tat, a Chinese-Malaysian philanthropist, instilled in me a deep appreciation of classical music and my childhood and teenage years were steeped in the German canon of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and much opera by Rossini, Verdi and Puccini.

Wagner was occasionally allowed on the musical menu but I remember being frightened by the intensity and power of Wagner as a child. It was not until my late teens when I had begun visiting European opera houses during my summer holidays, that my ears began to open up to the extraordinary sounds he created.

Whether you consider him a genius or a monster (and some do opt for the latter), whether you feel his music is healing or divisive, Wagner is not to be ignored. I realised I was hooked when I sat through two Ring cycles during my two pregnancies. Each cycle of four operas up to three and a half hours. They tell the stories of a highly-dysfunctional family of gods.

Certainly one of the world's most intriguing personalities, Wagner 's influence on the world of European 19th century thinking and culture was immeasurable - Wagner's music is definitely not for sissies! His character was recently explored by the renowned actor Simon Callow in a play called Inside Wagner's Head.

Callow said of Wagner: "There have been years where I've starved myself of Wagner, but then I binge on him over a whole weekend, which isn't a bad way to go about it - Wagner isn't a composer for sound bites."

This is why I was so delighted to help facilitate the first ever staging of Wagner's Parsifal at the Beijing Music Festival last month.The festival is a huge, prestigious event in China (its nearest equivalent would be the BBC's Proms).

Trust me when I say that after only two performances, Beijing was rocking with Wagner. Tickets were sold out within the first few hours of being released at the box office. There are apparently 3000 Wagner diehearts in China - fans were flying in from Wuhan, Chungking, Shanghai, to name but a few.

This production of Parsifal is a three-act opera based on poem about an Arthurian knight was timed to salute the bicentenary of Wagner, a fascinating and controversial artist who was prone to bigotry and diva-like behaviour but who wrote some of the richest, most sensitive librettos the world has ever known.

Considered by many to be Wagner's greatest work, Parsifal was co-produced by the Beijing Music Festival (now in its16th year) and the Salzburg Easter Festival - a first-ever international partnership forged between the two via mycharity, the KT Wong Foundation.

The KT Wong Foundation aims to build cultural bridges between the East and the West via artistic collaborations and education.

That is why we have also produced a series of filmed 'conversations' on Wagner featuring some of today's most sought-after artists in the field including actor Simon Callow, stage director Robert Carsen, singers Sir John Tomlinson, Stuart Skelton and Waltraud Meier; composers Guo Wenjingand Zhou Long, conductors Mark Wigglesworth and DanieleGatti and opera designer Richard Peduzzi.

The groundwork for Parsifal was laid in October 2010 when the KT Wong Foundation hosted a symposium on Sino-European Performing Arts. Discussions for a co- production began in earnest.

For staging Parsifal, credit must go to Maestro Long Yu, founder and Artistic Director of the Beijing Music Festival, who lobbied hard to bring the show to China. He is what I call a 'cultural warrior ' because he is not afraid to push the boundaries when it comes to art.

China and other far eastern countries has totally embraced and celebrates western classical music while, ironically, many European countries seem ignorant of their own musical heritage.

In contrast, the story couldn't be more different in China. While many Westerners mistakenly view the Chinese as lacking in humanity and sensitivity, it is a country steeped in five thousand years of culture and artistic passions. All over the Eastern world classical music is celebrated. It is at the core of their existence.

In China playing an instrument - usually the piano or violin - is as commonplace as brushing your teeth. It is part of every school curriculum and from the age of three or four children start playing. They do not see classical music as alternative, middle-aged music; it is at the heart of their educational development. When you consider China has around 100 million children - well, there is a lot of very committed young musicians playing the classics!

I hope as these children grow up they get the opportunity to taste more historic European music and stretch their horizons even further. For like many of Wagner's stories, Parsifal is a story steeped in magic. I call it the Mount Everest of his operas because it is so powerful and dense.

The fact that an opera laced in such obvious Christian iconography can transcend beyond the usual religious symbols and touch and enchant Chinese audiences who have grown up in a country where religion is not recognised, is testament to the power of Wagner's music. May there be many more Wagner productions in China for years to come.