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What Oskar Schindler was to the Jews of Kraków, John Rabe was to the civilians of Nanjing. Both men were members of Germany’s Nazi party who used their influence to hinder atrocities: in the case of Rabe, a Siemens executive, his chairmanship of the city’s International Safety Zone was credited with saving more than 250,000 Chinese lives during the 1937 Japanese invasion that has become known as “the rape of Nanking” (in pre-communist romanisation).
Already well covered in documentaries and fiction, Rabe’s story finally came to the opera stage this week, marking the 80th anniversary of the event as the inaugural production of Nanjing’s new Jiangsu Centre for the Performing Arts. With an all-Chinese cast and an international production team headed by the London-based, Shanghai-born director Elijah Moshinsky, 170 Days in Nanking: The Diaries of John Rabe is most definitely propaganda, though of a surprisingly understated sort.
When Moshinsky suffered a stroke earlier this year, Nigel Levings was left holding the reins. Technically, that meant melding his own lighting designs with projection and video by Tal Yarden and Mikaela Liakata to create a quasi-cinematic whole. A Japanese bombing run is displayed through projected light and shadow; actual documentary footage unfolds into an onstage chorus, with laser lights and HD projections recreating the grainy feel of decomposing celluloid.
The opera’s real strength, though, lies in Tang Jianping’s score, with subtle quotes from Bach and the requiem mass that draw true emotional depth from the surface of Zhou Ke and You Weizhi’s text. As Rabe, Xue Haoyin ponders the wisdom of convincing Chinese soldiers to surrender their weapons in the name of peace, only to see them mercilessly executed. Xu Xiaoying’s Minnie Vautrin, the headmistress of Ginling Women’s College, is haunted after being forced to send 100 students into sexual slavery in order to “guarantee the safety” of 10,000 other women.
170 Days is in need of trimming — and probably a bit of dramaturgy — if it is to travel further than its target audience. But its sense of moral ambiguity sets it well apart from most Chinese cultural discourse and remains thoroughly appropriate to a story where the Nazi is the good guy.
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