‘The Land of Smiles’: Love Meets Tradition at the Operetta

By Madalina Hubert, Epoch Times
January 1, 2014 Updated: January 1, 2014

TORONTO—Tenor Adam Fisher is having fun, and so are his leading ladies in the Toronto Operetta Theatre’s latest production of “The Land of Smiles.” 

In the operetta, Fisher plays a Viennese captain who shares a brief romance with Mi, a lively Chinese princess. Two sopranos, Vania Chan and Cindy Zhang, share the role of the princess, a choice the TOT’s general director Guillermo Silva-Marin couldn’t help but make.

“What’s a director to do? Two amazingly talented singers and one role!!” he said in a press release. “I took the easy way out … I engaged them both.”

Chan was recently featured in the Dora Award-winning play “The Lesson of Da Ji.” Zhang in her turn was a finalist in NTD Television’s Chinese International Vocal Competition in 2012.

And how does Fisher feel about having two beautiful young ladies fall in love with him on stage? 

“Cindy and Vania bring their own unique personalities to the character,” he said. “It’s just fun.”

Meeting of Cultures

Set at the crossroads of the 19th and 20th centuries, this Viennese operetta by Franz Lehár takes audiences to a time when China and the West were just beginning to get to know each other.

Chinese prince Sou-Chong (tenor Ernesto Ramirez) courts the Viennese countess Lisa (soprano Lara Ciekiewicz), lavishing her with precious gifts. The two fall in love, get married, and the countess follows her prince to his home in China. 

However, she is soon shocked by an unexpected tradition. The Chinese royal court demands that a prince take not one, but several wives. It is more about economic and political interests than love, yet this is something the Western-educated Lisa cannot tolerate.

At about the same time, Gustl, who had hoped to marry Lisa, comes to the royal court to bring her back home, a matter of upholding the Viennese traditions and his own honour. 

Yet upon his arrival he finds himself fascinated by Princess Mi, the Prince’s attractive younger sister. 

“I think in some ways, Gustl understands Lisa a little bit more after he sees Princess Mi, that you can come to understand a little bit and to like or even fall in love, possibly, with someone from another culture,” explains Chan.

In her turn, the smart and curious Mi is eager to learn about Western culture.

“But the traditions are still too strong at that time, too much of a shock still,” she adds.

Zhang, who grew up in Canada, said that although Chinese concepts have changed (such as the outdated tradition of multiple wives), the operetta still has some aspects that are true for Chinese families today. One is the principle that duty precedes feeling, which has played an important part in her upbringing. 

In fact, the title of the operetta “The Land of Smiles” refers to the concept that one must continue smiling even as one is going through hardship, while keeping the greater goal of values and traditions in mind. 

Bring the Kids

The operetta, a precursor of musical theatre, is something children may find particularly appealing. The performance is in English, the subject matter is relatively light, there is often dancing and comedy (as in this case), and the music is catchy. 

“[In both operetta and musical theatre] there was this idea that the melody is the most important thing and that it should always be pretty, it should always be catchy,” explains Fisher. 

“There’s a couple of Disney moments,” he said referring to some of the musical lines in “The Land of Smiles.”

Zhang fondly recalls performing one of Princess Mi’s arias for a kindergarten and primary school.

“[The children] reacted to absolutely everything. They giggled and laughed. I noticed things I had never noticed in the music,” she said, adding that her diction had never been better.

All three performers agree that performing for children is a special experience for a singer. 

“It’s the most honest audience you’ll ever perform for,” said Fisher.

The costumes are also a treat in the operetta, particularly the silk Han Couture dresses worn by Princess Mi and the ladies of the chorus. Among them are winners of NTD Television’s Global Han Couture Design Competition that have graced the stage of the NY Couture Fashion Week in previous years. 

Prior to each performance, patrons will also be able to enjoy a presentation on traditional Chinese culture in the theatre’s lobby at 7:30 p.m. 

The Toronto Operetta Theatre’s production of “The Land of Smiles” runs until Jan. 5 at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts. For more information, visit: www.torontooperetta.com or call 416.366.7723 for more information on the TOT Family Nights Out. 

Epoch Times is a sponsor of “The Land of Smiles.”