Sounds quite unimaginable: I celebrated my 19th birthday by watching The Phantom of the Opera at Shanghai Grand Theatre—and this time telling the story in Chinese. 

With the tour across China, this musical becomes the center of the audience’s debates and comments. Some fans praise it as “the glory of Chinese musicals” while some critics claim it “can’t reach the half of 25th-anniversary cast” and “actors fail to meet our expectations.” After watching, my cousin—a student at Shanghai Conservatory of Music, and I, also hold different comments from the perspective of a professional art student and a musical lover.

Frankly, this musical has done an excellent job in the most tricky part of making a Chinese version: translation. Compared to other languages, Mandarin Chinese has four tones and briefer expressions. If translations are not done carefully, the tones will be twisted, and the lyrics can’t fit in the rhythms of the songs, creating trouble for singers and audiences. There’s even an idiom in Chinese musical fans called “Mother tongue awkward.”, for musical versions in Chinese have been burdened by low-quality translations. The translation of  The Phantom of the Opera reaches the standard of sticking to the original text, being fluent to be spoken, and having literary grace. The Chinese lyrics are written in friendly and down-to-earth languages, avoiding using complicated Chinese idioms or beautiful, hollow descriptions. The well-known songs are all fluent and graceful to be sung in Chinese, making a feeling as if the original lyrics were written in Chinese as well. By its well-done translation, the Chinese version of The Phantom of the Opera not only bridges the gap between an English West End classic and normal Chinese audience but also turns “Mother tongue awkward” into “Mother tongue glory” and provides an excellent example for any upcoming Chinese version of musicals. 

The more controversial part of this musical is its artistic qualities. Compared to the mature musical stage plays overseas, there’s still much room for the Chinese cast to improve.  Overall, the performances of the four Phantoms, three Christines, and three Raouls are not stable, and due to the blind cast policy, actors that show up on the audience’s tickets are dependent on luck. At the June 4th Finale, the Phantom rushed the most famous song “Music of the Night.” When a popular singer Phantom battles with bel canto Christine and Raoul, stage effects are lowered, you can’t hear the Phantom anymore. My cousin, as a professional music student, points out that the pace of the chore is much slower than the original English performance. 

These facts all point to the biggest problem of Chinese musicals: the quality of actors. Very few Chinese actors can manage singing, dancing and acting all together. Most of the main actors in the Chinese cast are selected from opera singers, so they are not so experienced in musical acting. The dancers are not so good at singing, so the choir has to give up normal speed in case the show gets in disorder. For small stage plays, these flaws are not so obvious, but when it comes to a huge play like The Phantom of the Opera, a professional audience can easily point out that the performance doesn’t reach a high standard. Compared to West End or Broadway casts, the performance of the Chinese cast can be only graded as “passable.”

In conclusion, as a normal audience, I enjoyed the Chinese cast most of the time. And as an opinion committee writer, I have to admit that the charm of this show mostly comes from the music of Webber and the translation group, while the actors’ performance is not satisfying enough. Still, this musical establishes a weather vane for the development of Chinese musicals and spreads the charm of a West End classic from a Chinese perspective. I sincerely hope that the Chinese version of The Phantom of the Opera will go beyond the situation of “passable,” reach a performance not inferior to English casts, and even go out of China to spread this classic to anyone willing to embrace the unique beauty of music—in my mother tongue.