CHENGDU, CHINA - Speaking of opera, only a month ago I attended the world premiere of "The Letter" in Santa Fe. A few days ago, I went to what I thought was one performance by the Chinese National Opera and it turned out to be three for the price of one.
Scaled down for Westerners, the first was in traditional dress and followed an old folk tale about a young, spunky girl (Yang Paiteng) who wanted to be a trusted warrior under General Da Jiaozan. The two-character opera turned out to be only 20 minutes in length, much shorter than the traditional three to five hours for a Chinese audience. An actor in a spectacular costume swept on stage to play a ferocious 13th century general and demonstrated his power by posture, high-pitched speech-song, and tremendously energetic acrobatic-martial movement. The girl, demure and charming, presented herself to him and quickly challenged him to large stick combat followed by a swordfight, all the time speech singing in direct address to the audience and to him.
The ancient Chinese opera form dates from court life in the 3rd century and apparently reached its peak in the 19th century - about the same time Gilbert and Sullivan operettas were the pride of Great Britain. Americans have seen both satirized on television, especially by the Saturday Night Live cast. So you probably know about as much as I did about this unusual musical theater form.
It's hard on Western ears, but the plot scheme can be easily detected. Most of the stories are based on folk tales or historical figures. The Chinese musical scale is based on fifths and takes a lot of getting used to, not to mention a highly nasal singing style and an orchestra any military general would like to have out in front of the troops.
In Beijing, an offstage orchestra may have been small, but it packed a sonic wallop. It consisted of two-string fiddles, a mouth organ that would call a mountain goat down to a distant river, a four-string "moon" guitar, drums, bells, castanets and a Ban, a wooden time rattle. All this was amplified. Apparently every province has its own local opera company and presents a standard repertoire of the classic material.
The opera house I attended was in a suburb of Beijing and was brand new, the paint barely dry. The oddly short performance was colorful, lively, ear-splitting and a singular adventure. But what came next was even more surprising. A young man walked on stage with a microphone. I thought it was intermission, but he started to sing. In a very high-pitched tenor, he narrated a story about a brave Chinese soldier separated from his company during the Sino-Japanese War. It quickly became clear that Act II was a Chinese communist opera in simple story telling form, sung in the old style and meant to be patriotic.
When the man finished his story and took a bow, I thought that was the end of the evening - one old, classic Chinese opera and one new. Then he returned with a second singer, a baritone dressed in a red shirt. They began to enact the story just told. The baritone was the brave soldier, and when a soprano entered in 1950s dress, there suddenly was a very odd trio. I haven't mentioned that I was one of about eight Westerners in an audience of about 300 Chinese. They all seemed to know what was going on and often were singing along with the performers.
I needed some explanation afterward to make sense of the characters and the story. It turned out the soprano represented the village that helped the isolated soldier and, in the process, flushed out the last of the enemy. Well, what seemed so astonishing was seeing a 1953 Chinese communist opera sung and presented in the classic form. Apparently when Mao came to power and established the People's Republic of China, he ordered that new operas be created on patriotic themes but in the established style of the classical Chinese Opera.
When the performances were over, there was only lukewarm applause, no obligatory standing ovations as in the U.S. Since that evening, I've seen other cultural performances, but they have been very different. In Xi'an, where the famous Terra Cotta Warriors are, was a cross between the Chinese National Opera and a Broadway musical. Another in Lhasa turned out to be a hokey folk rendition about a farmer and his yaks. It was put on by a Tibetan restaurant that caters to Westerners, and it was a disappointment from the real thing seen everywhere in Tibet. By the time this column is published, I'll be back and ready to cover Durango musical fare.
And opera, not to mention musical theater, will never be the same.
Judith Reynolds is a
Durango writer, artist and critic. She spent the last month traveling in China sampling the local theatrical fare. Reach her at Jud_reyn@yahoo.com.