PEKING OPERA, CHINESE OPERA AND THEATER
Peking Opera make up Styles of Chinese theater and opera include Peking Opera, other kinds of regional opera, xiangsheng (comic opera-like dialogues), storytelling, shadow plays, puppetry, glove puppetry, and puppet opera. Because music is such an important element of Chinese drama and story is such an integral part of Chinese Opera, Chinese opera and drama are considered one in the same. Examples of China theater performed at the Kennedy Center, Washington D.C. in cooperation with the Ministry of Culture of the People’s Republic of China in autumn 2011 including the Tangshan Shadow Puppet Theatre; the improv comedy of the National Theatre of China’s Two Dogs’ Opinions on Life; the Kennedy Center debut of the Beijing Dance Theater performing their imaginative work, Haze; a celebration of Chinese symphony and opera.
Traditional drama, often called "Chinese opera," grew out of the zaju (variety plays) of the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) and continues to exist in 368 different forms, the best known of which is Beijing Opera, which assumed its present form in the midnineteenth century and was extremely popular in the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) court. In Beijing Opera, traditional Chinese string and percussion instruments provide a strong rhythmic accompaniment to the acting. The acting is based on allusion: gestures, footwork, and other body movements express such actions as riding a horse, rowing a boat, or opening a door. Spoken dialogue is divided into recitative and Beijing colloquial speech, the former employed by serious characters and the latter by young females and clowns. Character roles are strictly defined. The traditional repertoire of Beijing Opera includes more than 1,000 works, mostly taken from historical novels about political and military struggles. [Source: Library of Congress]
“In the early years of the People's Republic, the development of Beijing Opera was encouraged; many new operas on historical and modern themes were written, and earlier operas continued to be performed. As a popular art form, opera has usually been the first of the arts to reflect changes in Chinese policy. In the mid-1950s, for example, it was the first to benefit under the Hundred Flowers Campaign. Similarly, the attack in November 1965 on Beijing deputy mayor Wu Han and his historical play, "Hai Rui's Dismissal from Office," signaled the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. During the Cultural Revolution, most opera troupes were disbanded, performers and scriptwriters were persecuted, and all operas except the eight "model operas" approved by Jiang Qing and her associates were banned. After the fall of the Gang of Four in 1976, Beijing Opera enjoyed a revival and continued to be a very popular form of entertainment both in theaters and on television. [Ibid]
Drama was the first literature to be written in the vernacular. Famous early dramatists include Wang Shihfu, author of The West Chamber, and Kuang Han-ch'ing. Both men lived during the 13th century. Peking Opera have been selected as candidates for UNESCO intangible cultural heritage status. "Regarded as the essence of Chinese traditional culture, Peking Opera is already our intangible cultural heritage. Inclusion in the UNESCO list will definitely help its international promotion," said Wu Zuolai, a scholar with Chinese National Academy of Arts.
Many popular stories were performed as Chinese opera. One of China’s most famous stories, The Peony Pavillion , written more than 400 years ago by the Ming dynasty playwright Tang Xiazu, is a love story that takes place within a dream: a woman falls asleep by a peony pavilion and dreams of a handsome scholar she has never met. Unable to find him in the real world she dies of a broken heart and ends up in the Underworld, where the strength of her desire convince the Infernal Judge to release her ghost back into the land of the living to marry the man of her dreams. Fei Bo, a Chinese choreographer, told The Times: “The story “tells you universal emotions and passions. People can understand how strongly the heroine fights to find love. Drama and novels developed from the same story-telling tradition in which the use of vernacular language is a prominent feature. The Peach Blossom Fan and the popular short stories collected in Lasting Words to Awaken the World and Pounding the Table in Amazement are other works that grew from this tradition.
Good Websites and Sources: China Opera Experience sinica.edu ; Chinese Traditional Opera chinavoc.com ; Wikipedia article on Chinese Opera Wikipedia ; Peking Opera film beijing-opera.com ; Beijing Opera Masks PaulNoll.com ; China Page on Beijing Opera chinapage.org and chinapage.com ; Huangmei Opera China Vista ; Di Opera China Vista ; Exorcizing Ghost Opera China Vista ; Fodors Fodors Puppets China Vista and China Vista
Links in this Website: CHINESE CLASSICAL MUSIC Factsanddetails.com/China ; WESTERN CLASSICAL MUSIC Factsanddetails.com/China ; LANG LANG, YO YO MA, CHINESE WESTERN CLASSICAL MUSICIAN Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE POP MUSIC Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE ROCK, PUNK AND HIP HOP Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE DANCE Factsanddetails.com/China ; PEKING OPERA, CHINESE OPERA AND THEATER Factsanddetails.com/China
Peking Opera and other forms of Chinese opera merge singing, dialogue, acrobatics and pantomime into one art form performed by actors in garish make up or masks in a way that is not unlike Greek drama, which incorporated a chorus and also used masks extensively. Peking Opera also features acrobatics, martial arts, and poetic, stylized singing and dancing.
Westerners usually find that about an hour of Chinese Opera is enough. The costumes, the acrobatics and the atmosphere are interesting but the music and singing is often sheer torture. The Chinese in the audience often eat meals, breast feed their children, spit and hack, and listen the radio while observing the opera.
The younger generation in China has little interest in Chinese opera, which these days is performed mainly in a shortened form for old people and yawning tourists. Few young people are familiar with the symbols and stories that are essential to understanding operas and most young people don't like the strange falsetto singing style. One young man attending a Peking Opera told the New York Times, "That screaming stuff? I can't believe people like that."
Regional Chinese Operas
Cantonese Opera Many regions and cities have their own style of opera. According to one count there are 360 different operas forms still practiced. Some are known throughout China or across large regions. Many are known only in small districts.
Peking Opera is the most well known and generally regarded as the best. Also well-known is Shanghai-based Kunqu Opera. Sichuan Opera has a 200 year history and famous for slapstick. Anhui opera is one of the oldest and most refined forms of opera. Kunju, the oldest extant form, has such a small following theaters that houses can't even tickets away.
Yue Je, the traditionally Cantonese-style of opera, is similar to operas performed in northern China except that it draws on local folklore and history and is performed in Cantonese rather than Mandarin. These days classes in Yue Le are popular. Some people are enrolled in classes with hopes of becoming professional actors. Other do it to learn dance steps to keep fit.
Traveling folk opera troupes still travel from town to town in te countryside. The head of one such group, that performed on flat bed of an old jury-rigged trucks with loudspeakers, told National Geographic that 80 percent of their business was at funerals.
Peking Opera is the dominant dance-drama genre in China. No masks are worn. Instead the actors wear make up that is intended to highlight their facial features. The focus of the art form is spectacle and athleticism. Like Japanese kabuki, all the actors, even those playing female roles, are male. Most Peking Opera stories come from Chinese history and legends.
Beijing opera is an especially demanding form, both to perform and to witness. It takes a very long time to study, at least 8 to 10 years just to get in the door as a performer. To appreciate Peking Opera requires some background knowledge. “The more you know about Beijing opera, the more you love it, “ said Liu Hua, a former performer and now a teacher. “The problem is that it takes a lot to know it, and fewer and fewer people have the time or the inclination.” [Source: Richard Bernstein, the International Herald Tribune, August 29, 2010]
Pallavi Aiyar wrote in the Asia Times,“Requiring years of training not only to perform but also to appreciate, Peking Opera is not an easily accessible art. Involving the mastery of a range of subtle facial expressions, enhanced by heavy layers of mask-like make up, the atonal clanging of gongs and cymbals and a series of elongated trills sung in falsettos."
Journalist Henry Chu wrote in the Los Angeles Times; "What turns off many Westerners and younger Chinese from Peking Opera delights its older fans: the high-pitched, almost whiny singing; the cacophony of cymbals and clappers; the heavily stylized movements; and the bountiful symbolism, by which the slightest gesture on the nearly naked stage conveys meaning and action.”
The love of opera is very deep among some. In one of the opening scenes of the film Farewell My Concubine, one the character's exclaims, "If you belong to the human race, you go to the opera. If you don't go to the opera, you're not a human being."
The Peking Opera that tourist groups witness today is virtually the same as opera viewed by Chinese 200 years ago during the Qing dynasty. For many Chinese over the age of 60, Chinese Opera was the only form of entertainment they were exposed to when they were growing up. Old men can often be seen in parks singing their favorite parts of Peking Opera.
History of Chinese Opera
15th century figure of an actor By the A.D. 6th century pantomime dances were being performed in dynastic courts. Regarded as the precursors of Chinese theater, they blended stories, songs and dances. The performers wore masks or painted their faces. Early pieces from this genre include a performance based on the legend of Prince Lan Ling and a dance hall-style farce about a drunken wastrel called The Swinging Wife.
One of the oldest forms of Chinese opera, Ping tang (literally "words and song"), comes from the ancient city of Suzhou. It features men playing mandolin-like instruments and women singing and reciting ancient stories of love and betrayal "with much wringing of hands, shrill exchanges and appeals to heaven."
Evolving out of comic and balladic tradition from the Song Dynasty, Peking Opera has a continuous history of at least 900 years. The colorful make-up and costumes, loud percussion and ear-slitting shriek singing of Chinese opera all date to a time when the art was performed outside at open-air markets and temple courtyards and the performers had be able to project themselves above the crowd noises.
In the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) the formal four-act structure and the standardized role system of Chinese drama was developed. In the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) wealthy families supported their own theatrical troupe for their entertainment of themselves and their extended families.
History of Peking Opera
Peking opera was formally created in 1790 through the merging of several regional styles in China—namely two southern forms known collectively as pihuang—that have their roots in the 13th century. It incorporated regional forms of dance, mime, music and acrobatics and was more melodramatic. and even vulgar compared the older, more lyrical styles that preceded it.
In its early years Peking Opera was looked down upon by the scholar class but was popular among the general population. Chinese opera actors were considered the dregs of society, equal in status to prostitutes and pimps. Many actors were rumored to be homosexuals, which didn't them overcome their low social position. Laws prohibited woman from performing in Chinese opera and young boys were sold under contract and trained for the women’s roles. For a while the children of actors were once barred by government decree from taking the court civil service exams.
From the late 18th to mid 20th century, it was northern China most popular theatrical entertainment and regarded as the highest artistic expression of Chinese culture. Opera were usually performed in teahouses, private parties in restaurant-theaters, guild halls and wealthy people’s homes. Performances were often held at New Year's celebrations, weddings, and sometimes even at funerals and ancestor worshiping ceremonies. By the late 19th century Peking Opera began emphasizing heroic drama and was embraced by the royal court.
Chu wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Through enthusiastic imperial patronage and popular acclaim, the genre reached its zenith in the first half of the 20th century, when opera houses played to raucous houses of the young and old, rich and poor, powerful and humble, across the nation...Abroad, Peking Opera inspired playwrights and performers from Bertolt Brecht to Charlie Chaplin. Actors such as Mei Lanfang, arguably the biggest Peking Opera star of in modern history, enjoyed a world wide following. During his only U.S. tour in 1930, Mei's shows sold out on Broadway and earned raves in Hollywood. USC and Pomona College awarded him honorary degrees for his unrivaled skill in playing dan, or female, opera roles."
Despite being singled out during the Cultural Revolution for particularly vicious attacks Peking Opera managed to survive the Mao era. During the Cultural Revolution it was deemed feudalistic and reactionary. Afterwards it did less well bouncing back than other art forms such as Western music and modern dance, both of which have since made vigorous recoveries.
Chinese Opera Actors
Famous actor Zhang Jun Chinese opera actors are as much dancers and acrobats as they are actors. They do not deliver lines like Western actors but act them out in every sense of the word using exaggerated movements and facial expressions and even elaborate physical stunts. Realism has never been a concern. More importance is often given to the actions of the actors than their roles.
Few props are used in a Chinese Opera. All the attention is focused on the actors, who play roles that everyone familiar with Peking Opera recognizes. The roles usually fall into one of four categories: 1) sheng (male roles such as scholars, soldiers and officials); 2) dan (female roles such as mothers, maids and female warriors); 3) jing (painted face characters such as demons, adventurers and heroes); and 4) fujing (clowns).
Male roles are divided into four categories: 1) laosheng (old men with beards); 2) xiaosheng (young men); 3) wensheng (scholars and bureaucrats); and 4) wusheng (fighters, who often do the acrobatic roles). The five most important female roles are: 1) laodan (respected elderly mothers or aunts); 2) qinyi (aristocratic ladies, in elaborate costumes); 3) huadan (female servants, in bright costumes); 4) daomdan (female warriors); and 5) caidan (female comedians).
Many actors come from families that have produced actors for five or six generations. The Los Angeles Times describe on young actor who came from a family of actors that was forced to carry the tradition by his mother who named him “Jirong,” which means “to continue.”
Chinese Opera Singer Li Yuru
“Li Yuru, who has died in Shanghai aged 84, was one of the great Beijing Opera performers. She was born in Beijing in 1923 on the 12th day of the sixth month according to the lunar calendar. However, to make her seem younger, 1924 was put down on her registration papers at Beijing Theater school, and she retained this as her birth year in all her official papers. [Source: Delia Davin, The Guardian, July 21, 2008]
“Her family, descended from Manchu nobility, had fallen into poverty. She was 10 when her mother sent her to the school. It was lonely, but she would be fed while she learned a profession. She changed her surname from Jiao to Li, her mother's maiden name, in order not to affect her family's reputation. In the past, all female roles had been played by men, and Beijing Theater school was the first co-educational training institution. Her tutors for the dan (young female) roles she studied were male performers.” [Ibid]
“She worked hard, learning plays by heart in the traditional way, and doing the arduous physical exercises that were part of the training. After six months, she was given a small role, but was booed by the audience when she failed to reach the high notes. For some years, she was given only walk-on parts. Then before a scheduled performance, both the leading student-actresses lost their voices. Still only 14, Li took the major role and received rapturous applause. From that moment on her success was assured.” [Ibid]
“When she graduated, Li organized her own troupe with some classmates and they enjoyed a successful run in Shanghai. However, the 17-year-old soon found the pressure unbearable and disbanded her troupe. She worked under the protection of various male stars and was a private disciple of Mei Lanfang and other male masters of the dan role who had responded positively to the arrival of women performers. She became a great star, particularly known for her roles in The Dragon and the Phoenix, The Courtyard of the Black Dragon, Two Phoenixes Flying Together, and Three Pretty Women. She gave birth to two daughters, Li Li in 1944 and Li Ruru in 1952.” [Ibid]
Chinese Opera Singer Li Yuru in the Mao Era and the Cultural Revolution
“When the People's Republic was founded in 1949, Beijing Opera was seen as a popular art form but in need of reform. Plays were banned for reasons such as ‘too much violence’, ‘sexual suggestiveness’, ‘reactionary politics’ and even ‘no ideological significance’. With a relatively ‘clean’ personal history, Li was considered suitable material for a ‘people's artist’. She herself was hopeful about the new regime that had brought peace and stability and, like other actors, she was delighted that they would now be respected as equal citizens. In the course of ‘re-education’, she made self-criticisms of her ‘crimes’ - the bourgeois thought and individualism demonstrated in striving for fame; the make-up and fashionable clothes reflecting her bourgeois life style; and the counter-revolutionary romances and ghost plays she had performed. Although much of the repertoire disappeared, she performed plays such as The Drunken Imperial Concubine, The Xin'an Inn, The Pavilion of Red Plum Blossom, and Imperial Concubine Mei. She toured the Soviet Union and Europe several times, and gave Beijing Opera performances in Britain in 1958 and 1979.” [Ibid]
“All this came to an end with the cultural revolution in 1966. Li was incarcerated in an ‘oxpen’ (a room used as an and hoc prison) and separated from her daughters who were sent to work in the countryside. When she was released in the early 1970s the theater had become a duller place; only the model works produced under the supervision of Mao's wife Jiang Qing could be staged. Curiously however, as these were all mutations of Beijing Opera, Li and her colleagues were now needed again.” [Ibid]
“Mao's death in 1976 brought transformations. Li could once more perform the roles she had made famous. Her favorite play was The Drunken Imperial Concubine, which she first appeared in aged 11. She performed it for the last time when she was 70. She regarded passing on her art as important and was generous in her help to younger performers. She taught many students, offering master classes and giving seminars in various theater institutions.” [Ibid]
“Her marriage, in December 1979, to Cao Yu, one of China's greatest dramatists, led her to take up writing. She published a play in 1984, while a novel that appeared in 1993 was made into a 25-episode television serial and reprinted in 2008. Her research on the performing art of Beijing Opera has recently been published in Shanghai in a collection edited by her daughter.” [Ibid]
Beijing Opera was a living tradition. Not only the arias, but the techniques, movements, symbolism and make-up were all passed down from one player to another. Looking back on her life, Li lamented that so many plays with their specific acting skills had been lost in the hands of her generation. What, she asked, would she say to her predecessors when she saw them in the other world? The answer should surely be that through her teaching she was also able to pass on to future generations much that would otherwise have been lost. [Ibid]
Training for Chinese Opera Actors
A typical performer begins training around the age of eight, nine or ten and practices for six years to master the stylized falsetto and stylized movements. Students often practice from morning to night under the tutelage of a master who has traditionally whipped or beaten boys for making mistakes.
The training for Peking Opera including doing handstands for 40 minutes while their legs are tied to a rod and staying a crouching position for more than an hour. The raining is so rigorous that some trainees develop blood in their urine. The depictions of training hardship in film Farewell My Concubine are very graphic. Set at the Peking Opera School, it shows children being "literally tortured into becoming performers.”
The actor Jackie Chan entered the China Drama Academy, a training school of the Peking Opera, at the age of seven. He spent over a decade enduring torturous instruction in acrobatics, gymnastics, mime, singing, dance, and martial arts under the taskmaster Ju Yu-Yim-yuen.
At the school, Chan slept only five hours a night in a dormitory with 50 boys and girls. The children were given little to eat and on often beaten. Describing his first beating, "I remember dropping a piece of rice on the floor, and the teacher caned me." He added, "I was beaten almost every day. I never forgot how it felt. It made me never want to hit anyone. I don’t want children to think it's okay to beat someone up."
Chan’s kung fu training included throwing 1,000 punches in a row and then launching 500 kicks. He often did handstands on chairs and did an average of 5,000 punches and kicks a day. His singing and acting lessons were equally rigorous.
Chan’s parents signed a contact with the academy which essentially made him the school's indentured servant. His master took nearly all the money from his early acting roles..
Beijing Opera Training and Students
Young people are still being trained Beijing Opera. They generally start their training at age 11, going to one of the several Beijing opera academies around the country aimed at producing professional performers. “Children really like it,” teacher said. “ Another reason is that some parents love it, and they want their children to learn it, even if they’re not thinking about having them become professionals.” [Source: Richard Bernstein, the International Herald Tribune, August 29, 2010]
Describing the scene at a rehearsal hall at a shabby theater in the backstreets of southwest Beijing, Richard Bernstein wrote in the International Herald Tribune: “Watch out for that sword, the rehearsal director shouted. I don’t want anybody head getting cut off because you don’t know what you’re doing. Lots of weapons were on stage at the Beijing Opera Academy of China here the other day. Teenage future opera stars were armed with lances, spears, swords and daggers as they carried out an elaborately choreographed, intricate, stylized and acrobatic fight scene, all to the clash of cymbals, drums, wooden clappers and a substantial orchestra of Chinese string and woodwind instruments. “ [Ibid]
The early training lasts for six demanding, rigorous years. Given that Beijing opera is fading in popularity, especially among the younger generations, it seems strange that so many young people would want to go through it. “It such good training that the students can go in almost any direction even if they don’t end up in the opera,” Liu said. “A lot of our students end up on television or in the movies, she added. There are a lot of martial arts movies, and our students are all good at martial arts. Some of them become popular singers or actors. They’re not worried about their future. “ [Ibid]
A teacher at the Peking Opera Vocational College today told the Asian Times. “In the old days less than one out every 100 students could hope to get a place. Today we choose one out of 10.” The school currently has about 300 students who train for five years. ‘No one has the patience for nine-year training any more,’ said Wang.
Chinese Opera Stories
Opera has traditionally been important in passing on Chinese culture from one generation to another. Most stories fall into two categories: wen (“civilian”), based on lyrical love stories; and wu (“military”), based on heroic tales, and often featuring spectacular acrobatics. Most Peking Opera stories come from Chinese history, theology, cosmology and literature and legends. In a typical Chinese opera, four or five heavily-made-up singers stand under trees and act out a sad love story. There is generally some kind of moral message. Some traditional Chinese operas are over seven hours long.
The plot of Hua Deng ("Flower Lamp"), one of China's most famous operas, is similar to Romeo and Juliet. After the couple meets and has a few rendezvous, they come to the realization they can not marry. The women character commits suicide. After the man sings a sad song on her grave he too kills himself. Another famous Peking Opera story is about a ghost longing for his life on earth.
The plots of Chinese operas are often inspired by natural disasters, revolts and fairy tales. Popular operas include are "Havoc in Heaven" (about a clever Monkey King who foils attempts by the gods to capture him); "A Drunken Beauty" (about a Tang dynasty concubine who turns to drink when the emperor passes her for a rival); "The White Snake" (a tale of demons and the power of love); "A Fisherman's Revenge"; "The Water Margin"; Huozhuo (about a ghost that misses her mortal lover); and "Assassinating the Tiger General" (about a concubine who seeks revenge for the death of her emperor lover by seducing a general, and then killing him after getting drunk him and then committed suicide herself).
Chinese Opera Make-up and Costumes
Peking Opera dressing room Chinese actors decorate their face with paints made from oil and egg white. Some traditional Chinese actors have a cross-eyed face painted on their face with a mouth that lines up with the actor's eyes The face talks when the actor opens and closes his eyes. According to legend the tradition of face painting dates back to the 6th century B.C. when a famous warrior prince decided to paint his face to hide what he thought were his effeminate features. Among warriors face painting is supposed to imbue its wearer with strength and even magical powers.
In Peking Opera, clowns wear white patches of make-up around their eyes and nose. Warriors known as qing often have elaborate designs on their faces with symbolic value. Good guys generally had simple designs while the bad guys had more complex ones. Mask are only worn for animals such as a tiger, wolf or pig.
Costumes—such as ceremonial robes with dragon designs associated with high officials and ornament-covered padded armor associated with military heros—are deigned to highlight an actors movements. Actors playing noblemen were a silk robe embroidered with phoenix, lotus and Buddhist knot designs. Later the costumes began to reflect contemporary fashions.
Chinese Opera Symbols
Old man with white beard The exaggerated facial expressions, gestures and simple props are often symbolic. A whip with tassels, for example, indicates that the actor is riding a horse. A gray beard shows someone in their 50s or 60s; a white beard shows someone in their 70s or 80; a red beard shows someone with a cruel, demented or fiery temperament and is often worn by ghosts. A beard divided into three parts indicates a man of integrity. Short mustaches indicates a person that is rough and crude. A long curled mustaches is found on characters that are sly and devious.
Lifting a foot means entering a house, pointing to the temple means bashfulness and walking in a circle means a long journey has been taken. Chairs and tables are often put together to represent things like mountains or beds. Even acrobatic moves have symbolic value. A sudden backward “vat-turn”somersault, for example, expresses the despair a person feels upon losing a loved one.
On some costumes specific animals denote military rank and specific birds denoted civil service rank Colors symbolize character and personality traits. Black indicates honesty. Blue symbolizes courage. Red indicates loyalty. White can be a tip off for a traitor. Green is associated with virtue. Black sometimes indicates vulgarity. Yellow is reserved for the emperor and the royal court.
Chinese Opera Music and Dance
Chinese opera performances are accompanied by repetitive music and percussion often reminiscent of a galloping horse. The musicians often sit on the same stage as the actors, wearing normal street clothes. Traditional Chinese musical instruments used in Peking Opera include the erhu (a two-stringed fiddle with a low soft sound), huqin (two-stringed viola which often playing the equivalent of the melody), and yueqin (a four-stringed banjo-like instrument with a soft sound). Other instruments include sheng (reed pipes), pipa (four stringed lute), and assorted drums, bells and gongs. The time-keeping, galloping horse sounds come from the ban, a clapper that directs the music and provides actors with cues.
“Chinese theatrical dance,” Sophia Delta wrote in the International Encyclopedia of Dance, “is quite varied, owing to the wide range of dramatic stories...There are dances of courage, defeat, triumph, despair, love, intrigue, sadness, satire, and madness...Form and structure [are] within the contents of the play’s plot and roles...In addition to the emotions of the moment, the character’s dominate trait becomes the subject of dance. Whether the character is heroic, regal, modest, uncouth, sly, arrogant, or evil can determine the manner in the dance os executed.”
The combat scenes are derived from the wu shu and play a part in expressing the story and plot. Delta wrote: “A hero’s sword dance is not simply a technical interlude but a display of prowess and proof of his ability to overcome an adversary. A general fleeing from his camp performs elaborate dance. all the while singing the story of his plight.” Ballet has also bee incorporated, especially in the dance and movements of the women’s roles.
Chinese Opera Movement
“The choreographic nature of acting on the Chinese stage,” A.C. Scott wrote in the International Encyclopedia of Dance, “is apparent in the formalized treatment of movement and gesture, integrated with passages of song and music, in which words are treated as time-movement units. Hand gestures symbolizing emotional reactions create a continuous visible element with the tonal movement of the actors’ singing and declamation. Graceful passages of pointing with the fingers of one or both hands move through spatial sequences attended by the following glances of the performer, whose foot movements timed to the music carry forward the motifs of the dance.”
Delta wrote: “Always present...is the manner of moving used to define the specific individual being portrayed. Roles fall into genres—human beings, animals and birds, and supernatural beings...Ghost are conceived of as being stiff, devils as curvaceous; they dance grotesquely and humorously...The intrinsic quality of each animal or bird is fancifully and fully exploited—the powerful tiger, the brazen leopard, the sly fox, or the wily eagle.”
“Because classical opera uses no scenery, the actor-dancer sets the stage by incorporating the idea of physical environment onto gesture and movement...Action expands the stage when, from atop three stacked tables, the dancer does a double somersault to indicate he is running down a mountain. Many actor-dancers turn the stage into a sea with spread-eagle leaps, diving falls and spiraling turns...A general on a symbolic horse uses slipping, sliding and collapsing movements to portray efforts to advance on icy ground.”
Shaoxing Opera is very popular. Theaters in Shanghai that feature it often sell out. It has also had successful tours in Taiwan, Canada, Hong Kong and the United States. One thing that sets it apart from other operas is that all the performers are female.
Shaoxing Opera was founded in the early 1900s. It began as an all-male school. In 1923, it opened a training school for girls. The school was so successful that by the 1930s all the members of the opera were female. It was initially popular on its home turf in Zhejiang province. Later it expanded along the Yangtze to Shanghai. Today, there are about 300 Shaoxing opera companies around the world.
Most of the stories of the operas are based on famous novels and old legends and focus on mistreated lovers and unrequited love. There are acrobatic moves and super brightly-colored costumes as there are in other forms of opera. One of the most popular shows is Red Mansion, on an old story of which most Chinese are familiar. The story is about two cousin, who are lovers.
Fans follow some of the companies like Dead heads. One fan of the opera star Zheng Guifeng told the International Herald Tribune, "We're her groupies. We go to watch her wherever she performs." The director of the Shaoxing opera said, "Our fans are mostly housewives. The reason they like us is because our operas are about personal relationships—very romantic. We pay great attention to beauty—the costumes are pretty, the scenery is pretty, the music is pretty."
Theaters that host Shaoxing opera rack up high sales in merchandise, selling things like key chains, video discs, post cards. There have been near riots when supplies have ran low.
Kunqu Opera and Peony Pavilion
Kunqu is regarded as the mother of Chinese opera. It has 600 years of history, compared to Peking opera, which has just over 200 years of history. Kunqu is an art form governed by strict rules: The rehearsal of most plays takes at least six months, while some can take three years just to rehearse.
Kunqu is considered China's oldest opera and one of its most influential theatrical traditions, but it was once on the verge of extinction. The Shanghai-based Kunqu Opera returned in the late 1970s after the end of the Cultural Revolution. With donations from a Hong Kong billionaire, the Shanghai opera house was refurbished, and in 1996 the Kunqu opera gave 234 performances, 80 of which were to full houses. In 2001, Kunqu Opera was designated by UNESCO as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible heritage of Humanity,
Kunqu opera’s most famous work is Peony Pavilion. In 1946 Mei Lanfang played the aristocratic lady Du Liniang in the opera who, in a dream, falls in love with Liu Mengmei, a scholar. It was Mei's first appearance on the stage after World War II. While Mei was considered the most famous Peking Opera artist in China, he was also good at Kunqu opera. In 1930, Mei and his team visited the United States and dazzled audiences with the same work.
In 1998, Kunqu Opera was invited New York to perform the famous opera Peony Pavilion as the marque event of the Lincoln Center Festival. But the opera didn't happen because an ultra-conservative Communist bureaucratic named Ma Bomin refused to allow the opera to leave the country on the ground that the director's interpretation of the Peony Pavilion was "feudal," "pornographic," and "superstitious" and contained "unhealthy elements."
Ma had previously approved the opera but just as the actors were getting ready to leave for New York she blocked the shipment of six tons of important costumes, sets and props. After representatives from Lincoln Center flew to Shanghai to try to work out a compromise, she agreed to let the sets and costumes go. When someone asked her if the actors would be allowed to go, she answered no. The opera was well received in China and the director said his aim was to be true to original 1598 version of the play. But in the end he was unwilling to make changed demanded by Ma and the entire opera was scuttled. The whole episodes was covered in the New York Times and on 60 Minutes.
Some member of the Shanghai Opera have emigrated to New York. Unable to get enough work as performers, some work in video rental shops or take-out Chinese restaurants.
Image Sources: 1,7) Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html ; 2) Chinese Hisorical Society ; 3, 9) Beijing government ; 4) Henan historical Museum; 5,8) Peking Opera home page; 6,9, 10) Trisha Shadwood travel blog; 11) Kunqu opera, UNESCO
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated January 2013