Travels in China: 2011

Travels in China: Part 4

One night, we went to the Peking Opera. Here’s what we saw.

Peking Opera

We also went to Peking Opera in Beijing. Just as with Peking Duck, it’s also called Peking Opera (it’s not Beijing Duck nor Beijing Opera).

Since many of you are somewhat familiar with Western opera, I’ll compare and contrast the differences. I’ve been to perhaps 12-15 opera performances in California and Germany.

In the late 1700s, various theatrical and music traditions came together to create what is now called Peking Opera. It’s only loosely similar to Western opera. Apparently it developed without any influence from Western opera (and vice-versa: Western opera wasn’t influenced by Peking Opera.)

Several theaters present their productions of Peking Opera. Tickets are 680 yuan per person (US$106, which is about the same for opera in California).

A friend got first-class tickets for us. We sat in the section at the front where there were tables and chairs, as if for dinner theater. You sit at a table for five, with waiters who serve tea and cookies. (The tea is Chinese green tea, not Western dark tea.) The audience is dressed informally, whereas in Western opera, the audience is generally formal: men wear suit and ties, while women wear evening gowns.

Helen waiting for the opera to start.

The performance lasted two hours and 45 minutes, with no intermission or breaks. People entered and left during the performance (in Western opera, there is no entrance during the performance.) People take photographs during the performance (which is discouraged in Western opera.) The audience was entirely Chinese. I think I was the only non-Chinese there. Just as with Western opera, there are sub-titles (but in Chinese). The Chinese need these; they can’t understand the singers.

There are only twelve or so actors at most on stage (in French or Italian opera, there can be moments with 400 or more on stage.)

Background and situation are implied with minimal action. To show that the actors are on a river boat, two men at the back hold oars. That’s all there is: no boat, no water. In contrast, a major production of Aida, the Italian opera by Verdi, will have colossal Egyptian temples, hundreds of soldiers, swarms of dancing girls, horses, chariots, and elephants and everything is motion all at once. Watch the Triumphal March from Aida. Yes, that’s a stage!

At most, Peking Opera may have only a simple cloth backdrop for a minimalist set. The focus is on the performers’ skill and their presentation and control of voice, not the action or the set.

The costumes are colorful and elaborate and the result is deliberately artificial, not natural. The point is to emphasize artificiality, not to create a natural look. Just as with Chinese cuisine, there is not a unified color tonal range to the set. The colors clash and contrast (good Western opera production features excellent color coordination). This isn’t a failure of Peking Opera: it’s intentional.

Each moment is precisely scripted. They snap to position, pause for a moment, and snap to the next position. The movements are synchronized by the music, which is mostly percussion to mark time for the performers. The orchestra is small (only 6-9 musicians), who sit at the side, not the orchestra pit.

The actor’s movements are standardized. For example, as he raises his arms, his long sleeves slide back. The actor shakes his sleeves precisely four times. This standardization reduces the significance of the movement to put focus on what matters: the voice. For the same reason, there is no change in lighting. The stage is brightly lit and stays that way throughout the performance.

The actors use a wide range of vocal effects. They can start with speech, which rises into song and drops back into speech again. Spoken Chinese uses tones. Beijing Chinese uses four tones (rising, falling, long, and drop-rise). Shanghainese uses nine tones. When you listen to people, there is very little difference in tones. But in Peking Opera, each word is enunciated clearly and distinctly, so you can hear its tone.

Here’s a clip from the well-known romantic opera White Snake.
The woman is the White Snake, a mythical creature.
An unlucky young scholar has fallen in love with her.

An aria by Li Shengsu, a leading performer of Peking Opera.
Note her elaborate head dress and costume. As she performs, others stand still.

There is little acting or action. The performers stand and deliver their lines. When one speaks, the others freeze (in Western opera, this is called “park and bark” 🙂 However, there can be several martial arts scene, where characters fight in a kind of gymnastic ballet combat. It would be very amusing to see Western opera stars try to perform ballet and somersaults.

There are several hundred works. Many are on DVD with Chinese sub-titles. If you like Western opera, you should get a few Peking Operas and watch these.

Next: Beijing, Architecture, and Closing Notes

China Part 5: Beijing, Architecture, and Closing Notes