The brilliant voice of Luciano Pavarotti and the theatrical magic of an Italian opera company have come to China -- and the Chinese are as smitten as the rest of the world with the marvel of it all. At their performances in Peking this week and next, Mr. Pavarotti and the Municipal Opera Theatre of Genoa are discovering the enthusiasm of thousands of Chinese music lovers. At Tuesday's opening night, the audience was even a little on the wild side.
``They told me Chinese audiences were very quiet and reserved,'' the great Italian tenor said after his Peking debut, at which more than 2,700 people coaxed him to sing five encores. ``I was shocked to see such a warm and enthusiastic reception. The audience was at a maximum you could expect. I am very surprised, and thank them very much.''
The crowd-control police may have been surprised, too, as they kept young fans from storming the stage. When the stacatto clapping failed to convey enough approval, some listeners began pounding their seats. At the end, almost everyone was standing, and they were as exhausted from their ``bravos'' as were the performers from their 2 hours on stage.
Pavarotti clearly loved it. During the recital with chorus and full orchestra under the direction of Emerson Buckley, he was moved to take frequent musical risks with his famous high C's, especially during a third encore. ``After such a reception, no singer could resist,'' said an Italian music critic with the group.
``This has been a special treat for Chinese music lovers,'' Chinese soprano Ye Paiying said. ``He has integrated in himself not only music and technique, but feelings and language as well.''
As it turned out, the advice of a Peking newspaper to the capital's usually cool theater-goers may not have been necessary: Just as with Chinese opera, it told its readers, they could applaud during the performance.
``When the audience applauds, the actors and actresses will stop singing, and when the audience calms down, they will continue. So it's not necessary for the audience to express their satisfaction or enthusiasm only after the act is over,'' the newspaper wrote in an introductory article earlier this week.
Some of the performances are being broadcast live over Chinese radio, and there also will be taped TV broadcasts next month. Chinese audiences are no strangers to Western opera. Since 1979, the Central Opera Theater of Peking has staged Verdi's ``La Traviata''; Puccini's ``Madama Butterfly'' and ``Gianni Schicchi''; Mozart's ``The Marriage of Figaro''; and Bizet's ``Carmen'' -- all in Chinese.
Some Western opera music is so popular, in fact, that many Chinese don't recognize it as foreign. Recently, an American businessman who speaks fluent Chinese was humming the Toreador Song from ``Carmen'' in a hotel elevator when an employee spoke to him in Chinese. Surprised at her boldness, he asked how she knew he could speak Chinese.
``Because you were humming a Chinese song,'' she explained.
This is the first China tour for a Western opera company, thanks to a cultural agreement between Italy and China. The troupe will give five performances of Puccini's ``La Boh`eme,'' beginning this weekend. Pavarotti is scheduled for another recital on July 4.
The Italian government is picking up the tab of some $3.9 million for the Peking portion of the trip. But tickets are still very expensive by Chinese standards. They sell for 10 yuan (about $3 each). This is more than 12 times the cost of an ordinary movie ticket here. And they're hard to come by for ordinary people, since many have been distributed through work units to music professionals. Some desperate fans have paid up to 40 yuan (around $12) for a seat -- half of a month's salary for office workers.