Guangxi Li

15 November 1929 Tianjin – 13 March 2022 Beijing

Guangxi Li sings Arşin mal alan: Axtarıb tapdım səni, in Chinese

Guangxi Li sings Evgenij Onegin: Kuda, kuda vy udalilis, in Chinese

Li Guangxi (in China, it's always the family name first and the given name last, and you'll typically find his name written in the Chinese order) had a difficult childhood and youth. From 1937 to 1945, during World War II (subdivision Second Sino-Japanese War), his native Tianjin was under the brutal Japanese occupation, in starvation and poverty. When Li Guangxi was 17, his father died, and he had to quit school and earn a living as an office clerk at a mining company. In his spare time, he sang in all theaters of Tianjin, and became a quite well-known amateur singer.

In 1953, the Central Opera Beijing (today the China National Opera) performed in Tianjin, and Li Guangxi was sold on opera. He applied for the Central Opera, and was accepted in 1954, although he had never studied voice (and he never would). When in 1956, the Central Opera staged the very first Western opera in China, La traviata, Li was Alfredo, and he was a sensation.

In late 1957, he was banished to the countryside (Hebei Province) in the course of the Down to the countryside movement that was part of Mao's Cultural Revolution, and sent 17 million "privileged" young people to work the soil on farms at the back of beyond. In 1958, Prime Minister Zhou Enlai revoked the banishment because he wanted Li Guangxi to join him on his visit to the Soviet Union, where Li sang Lenskij at the Bolshoj in Moscow, to the acclaim of Nikita Khrushchev.

Back home, he continued to appear with the Central Opera. At the time, Western music was way too exotic and too rarely performed in China to make for a full-fleshed career, so Li spent most of his time appearing in Chinese operas (no traditional opera of course, suppressed by the Communist regime, but Western-style Chinese opera like Liu Hulan by Chen Zi, musical propaganda revues (notably Dongfang hong/The East is red), and in concert. But he had one more role in what is considered Western music in China, although in the West, the work is all but unknown: Arşin mal alan, the foremost Azerbaijanian operetta (by the foremost Azerbaijanian composer, Üzeyir Hajıbəyov). Li sang Əsgər (Asker), and it was the second role that made him really famous in China (it's surprising, to put it mildly, that Arşin mal alan is one of the most popular operettas in China).

In 1969, the Cultural Revolution arrived at a point where the Central Opera was disbanded, and its members sent to the countryside to work (again!). This time, Li had to work in the surroundings of his native Tianjin. It took three years until Zhou Enlai freed him once more... Norodom Sihanouk, alternately king and prime minister of Cambodia and a prince with communist leanings, had been ousted by a rightist coup-d'état, and lived in Beijing in exile. Now Sihanouk, a man of many talents, was also a composer, and wanted to invite Chinese singers to perform his songs. Zhou Enlai sent him Li Guangxi, who sang at the party for Sihanouk's 50th birthday on 31 October 1972; Sihanouk was enthused, and Li had got it made: for the rest of his exceptionally long career, he was highly distinguished, and highly esteemed.

Reference 1, reference 2, reference 3 and picture source, reference 4, reference 5, reference 6, reference 7

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