BEIJING c. 1778





In May 2010 I attended a symposium in Beijing to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the death of Matteo Ricci, the Italian Jesuit who was the first Westerner to be admitted into the Forbidden City as an advisor to the Wanli Emperor, and the first foreigner to be buried in Beijing. The Emperor designated a Buddhist temple for his memorial, which became, over the years, a burial ground for Jesuits. The tiny Zhalan cemetery, miraculously spared destruction in the Cultural Revolution, is now in the grounds of the Beijing Administrative College, just West of centre, a hidden treasure in the tumult of modern Beijing. It was here our study day ended, with a ceremony and a prayer at sunset, marking the significance of the Jesuits transmitting science, culture and understanding between East and West.


Supposedly, it was due to Italian Jesuits that Western opera came to China. La Cecchina, ossia La buona figliuola, based on Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, with a libretto by Carlo Goldoni and music by Gluck’s rival, Piccinni, premiered in Rome in 1760. It was a sensational success, aided by its perceived risky subject matter, and spread quickly across Europe, with fashions and boutiques named after it. This work is cited as the first Western opera to be performed in China, but no sources agree on a date, or whether the work was staged or played in concert. In an early French biography of Piccinni, published in 1801, less than a year after his death in Paris, a Father Amoretti is quoted that in 1778 some Jesuits brought a score of La Cecchina to Beijing, and played it for the Qianlong Emperor, who ‘was

so moved, he commanded a group of musicians to perform the piece, eventually having a kind of theatre built, decorated with scenes of La Cecchina in order to both see and hear.’ A Chinese source gives the date as 1760, the date of La Cecchina’s premiere, which seems even more unlikely. Though Matteo Ricci, over 150 years earlier had presented the Emperor with a a manicordio (possibly a clavichord), and the first book in Chinese about Western music was published in 1713, transmission was slow and fitful, so the presence of an operatic troupe in China seems fanciful. Thus, I would not only like to guide my operatic Tardis to alight on the correct date of this fabled affair, I would like to have the ears of the inquisitive and cultured Qianlong Emperor, who excelled in war, diplomacy, and learning, grafted onto my own to hear just what it was that tickled his fancy to the extent of having a theatre built for this one opera.

If this never happened, then I’ll opt for a future date: the premiere of Nixon in China in Beijing – will this be possible while Chairman Mao’s likeness stares down the masses in Tiananmen Square? ......I won’t hold my breath.

© Julian Grant 2012. This article appeared in OPERA Magazine December 2012.