Perhaps you’ve never been to a live performance of an opera like Aïda or Lohengrin, but you have at least passing familiarity with the conventions of Grand Opera. If nothing else, you have heard Luciano Pavarotti singing “Nessun Dorma” on the music loop in your neighborhood Italian restaurant. When someone says opera, it creates a mental image for you: “The opera ain’t over ’til the fat lady sings,” maybe.
Whatever your mental image, it is at odds with Beijing Opera (or Peking Opera, as it is also known). For one thing, Beijing Opera has no fat ladies. There are many other unique features of this theatrical idiom, developed by the Chinese in the late 18th century.
During our recent visit to China, Sally and I attended a performance. A brief description of that experience follows, culled from my journal entry for September 5, 2010. The evening began with a meal featuring Peking Duck…
…After dinner we walked through the lobby, where the performers were putting on their elaborate makeup. (see photo) We were then escorted to a table in the theater that was perhaps fifty or sixty feet from the stage. There were some snack items on the table — peanuts encrusted in something was one choice; a bowl of what looked like limes (but were called oranges) was another. A young waiter had a tea kettle with a spout that was at least three feet long. He gave a showy performance of pouring hot water into our tea cups.
The opera turned out to be unlike the version of opera we know. There were no arias or inspiring choral singing. The orchestra did not play what we would recognize as melodies. There were only eight or ten musicians, most of whom seemed to be playing percussion instruments. The others had stringed instruments, one of which looked something like a banjo.
This aggregation provided punctuation to the odd behavior on the bare stage. The performers were dressed in period costume — I guess that’s what you’d call it, but I have no idea what period. They strutted and struck poses and did some acrobatic stuff. The Chinese people in the audience who could appreciate what they were seeing would reward the performers by shouting what sounded like “Ho!” We westerners exchanged bemused glances, as if to say, “Huh?”
One scene featured a young woman (or someone who was portraying a young woman, anyway) who sang. “Wailed” might be a more accurate description; it was an ear-splitting falsetto that seemed to be conveying her dismay about something. Even the English-translation supertitles didn’t make clear what her issues were, but it seemed to have something to do with a sick husband, and her desire to obtain herbs that bestowed immortality.
The last scene had some terrific acrobatic maneuvers that involved several performers tossing and kicking flexible wands at each other. It began with the woman fighting one warrior with two batons. More joined the fray until there were four warriors and eight batons flying around; she kept several in the air at once, kicking or slapping them back at the warriors. I liked that part, and so did the locals, who broke into sincere applause and lusty “Ho!”s at the finale…