Opera (Pecking Opera)
Peking Opera, the unique theatrical synthesis
of song and dance, acting and acrobatics, was originally a form
of local cheatre in North China, but its popularity has now spread
throughout China. Like most Chinese local operas, it is truly a
comprehensive art combining stylized acting with singing, acrobatics,
and colorful costumes. It has become the most popular and influential
of more than a hundred kinds of dramatic forms on the Chinese stage.
Peking Opera began to emerge in its present form
more than 200 years ago to the time of Qing Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795).
On his frequent hunting expeditions in south-central China, Emperor
Qianlong developed an interest in the local operas. In 1790, to
celebrate his 80th birthday, he summoned opera troupes from different
localities to perform for him in Beijing. Four famous troupes from
Anhui Province remained in Beijing after the celebrations, and the
vigorous clear tunes of Anhui Opera gradually replaced Kunqu Opera,
which had been popular in the palace and among the upper classes
in Beijing. In 1828, a Hubei troupe came to Beijing and often performed
together with the Anhui troupes. These two types of singing blended
on the same stage and gradually gave birth to a new genre, which
came to be known as Beijing Opera. Therefore, Beijing Opera has
incorporated the best elements from operatic forms.
In the early part of the 20th century, millions
went to the opera house more like a teahouse or a variety theatre-and
largely through the acting genius of the late Mei Lanfang (1894-1961),
Peking Opera even influenced Western Mtists such as British Film
Artist Charles Spencer Chaplin (1889-1977), and German playwright
and poet Bertold Brecht (1898-1956).
The singing in Peking Opera is highly stylized
but its variations of rhythm and pitch enable the performer to express
the thoughts and emotions of different characters in different situations.
Recitatives may be in dialogue and monologue form; either a special
kind of musical speech, yunbai (spoken parts in Peking Opera where
the traditional pronunciation of certain words is slightly different
from that in current Beijing dialect), or standard spoken Chinese,
jingbai (parts in Peking Opera spoken in Beijing dialect or capital
vernacular) may be employed. Acting in Peking Opera encompasses
a set range of movements, gestures and expressions. Every movement
or pose, such as stroking a beard, setting a hat straight, swinging
a sleeve or lifting a foot, has its own "formula" or pattern,
which has been reduced to its essentials and perfected.
The art of illusion is one of Peking Opera's most
important characteristics, expressed through techniques of exaggeration
and concentration. It is said that Peking Opera performers conquer
time and space. Backdrops and stage props are kept to a minimum;
often a table and two chairs in front of a big curtain is regarded
as sufficient. The three dimensional stage props of modern Western
drama are seen as superfluous or even as an encumbrance. The performers
use gestures and body movements to represent actions such as opening
and closing a door, going up or down a building or a mountain, and
embarking, disembarking or travelling by boat. A decorated whip
represents a horse, a paddle, a boat and two pennants embroidered
with wheels of a carriage. When an actor walks in a circle, it means
he has gone or a long journey. Four generals and four soldiers signify
an army and fighting in the dark through dance and acrobatics on
a brightly lit stage. By such techniques, passed down and developed
by generations of performers, Peking Opera has made it possible
to transform a small stage into the whole universe.
Stringed and wind instruments are used for the
musical accompaniment to Peking Opera, but even more characteristic
as the percussion instruments-gongs and drums of different sizes
and types, and castanets made of padauk wood and bamboo. The most
important stringed instrument is the jinghu (a kind of two-stringed
fiddle) followed by the erhu (also a two-stringed fiddle), plus
some plucked instruments such as yueqin (a kind of mandolin with
four strings). The stringed instruments are played in unison but
do not practice Western-style harmony.
The character roles in Peking Opera are finely
difierentiated according to age and disposition. Female roles are
called dan, male roles are sheng, clowns are chou. Roles characterized
by the use of different patterns of facial make-up which distinguish
a rough, frank character from a cruel or sinister one are called
jing jiao or hua lian, (painted faces); the audience knows from
the colours and patterns what kind of character is being portrayed.
For instance, red signifies loyalty and courage, yellow signifies
fierceness, white usually signifies villainy and black signifies
honesty and straightforwardness, Spirits, monsters, immortals and
Buddhas are often identified by gold and silver. There are different
performing styles also for each of these role types, including different
styles of singing.
The elaborate and gorgeous costuming of Peking
Opera is one of its special characteristics. They are based on the
style of the Ming Dynasty costume, with much use of deep red, deep
green, yellow, white, black and blue. Strongly contrasting colors
are freely used, and embroidery in gold, silver and colored thread.
They are strict rules for costumes based on rank character and life-style.
The stage props are decorated and beautified versions of their real-life
counterparts, and are often works of art in themselves.
The plot-development of Peking Opera does not
conform to the general pattern of other types of drama. In modern
theatre and drama, the struggle between heroes and villains is gradually
developed, and the final outcome is left to the end. But in Peking
Opera, the heroes and villains revealed as soon as they appear on
the stage. The audiences for Peking Opera, have gone beyond the
desire to know the outcome: they are already familiar with the plots
about the Monkey King, Xiang Yu the Conqueror, the women generals
of the Yang family. It is rather the magic of the performance itself
and the skilful techniques of the singing, dancing and acrobatics,
which attract them. For this reason the same piece can be seen over
and over again without boredom. The first performer to introduce
Beijing Opera abroad was the famous dan actor Mei Lanfang (1894-1961),
who went to Japan in 1919, to the United States in 1929 and the
Soviet Union in 1935. In 1932, another famous Peking Opera, Cheng
Yanqiu, made a tour of Europe and gave performances and lectures.
Since 1949 Peking Opera troupes have made frequent trips abroad,
to places such as Japan, Europe, Latin America, the United States
and Africa. Today Peking Opera has won high praise throughout the
Recently, traditional opera has undergone something
of a renaissance and there are performances nightly in Beijing.
Overseas tourists should not miss the opportunity to see one, even
though tourists will be baffled by much of it. Most operas are based
on folk mythology or classical literature, but don't worry ahout
the plots (even many Chinese have difficulty following the archaic
language and the words of songs are usually screened at the side
of the stage to assist audiences). What impress the audience most
is the sumptuous costumes and make-up and the acrobatic battle scenes
(like circus performers, opera artists are rigorously trained from
early child-hood.) Everything in the opera has significance-from
the embroidery on a robe indicating the wearer's rank to the pattern
and color of his make-up, expressing character. As in other Asian
dance forms, gestures, even of fingers and eyes, are all-important.
And mime is a key element. Very few people are used and it is up
to the actor to show, by lifting a foot that he is going through
a doorway, or by waving a whip that he is riding a horse.
Swords and staves will be brandished and twirled
at breakneck speed in flight sequences without the actors ever touching
one another. For the aficionados, it is the singing that matters
(old timers talk of "Listening to" rather than "watching"
an opera,) but the lengthy arias may seem strange to ears raised
on Western harmonies.
Likewise the harsh, percussive sounds of the orchestra,
which sits on one side of the stage and is led by an "erhu,"
or two-stringed Chinese fiddle.
Among the most famous Peking Operas are
"the Monkey King," "the Drunken Beauty," "the
White Snake," "Crossroads," "a Fisherman's Revenge."
and "Strategy of an Unguarded City." But for the newcomer,
program of excerpts featuring the highlights of two or three operas
is recommended, since entire performance may prove a little much
to take at one setting.
Theatres regularly presenting Peking Opera
include Chang'an, Liyuan at Qianmen Hotel, and Hunan Guild.
Cloud Taoist Temple
Center "Water Cube"
Stadium "Bird's Nest"