The Artistry of Lao Dan

Date: March 8 and 9, 2013
Location: City Hall Concert Hall, Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong Arts Festival has been running a multi-year series on different role types in Beijing opera. This year, they focus on lao dan (老旦), or the old lady.

Lao dan specializes in the portrayal of middle- to old-aged women, most often facing calamity, injustice, or often both. Lao dans differ from other dan (female) roles in Beijing opera because they typically do not wear elaborate costumes or heavy makeup (except those younger performers who need to look older onstage than they really are). Hand gestures and finger placements, academically crucial in most other dan roles, do not feature prominently here. Lao dans’ dramatic arsenal thus rests primarily with the voice (a full one, as opposed to falsetto in most other dan roles). The appropriation of a full-powered, well-controlled chest voice enables a more layered, nuanced timbre, thereby empowering the performer to emote more profoundly through singing. Whether playing an authoritative empress amid political turmoil or an ageing grandmother wailing for her lost son, the fully glory of lao dan’s artistry cannot simply be registered through visual dramatics and wearable embellishments; it must be done vocally.

This provides a challenge, however, as lao dans have, until recently, been sung by males, whose naturally different timbre requires a slightly different mix of air flow and posture. The dearth of female lao dans to pass on their trade (now most commonly sung by females), and a relatively few plush roles for them, means that the role of lao dan is rarely taken up by volunteering newcomers in the trade. Yet, a Beijing opera without a reliable lao dan is like staging Verdi without a dependable baritone. This year’s Festival is special because it introduces to the Hong Kong audience four of the most talented lao dans in the business today to work on a variety of pieces, from old classics like The Story of a Golden Turtle (金龟记) to rarities like Duel with Spears (对花枪), which features acrobatic display rarely found in the lao dan repertoire. The pieces were performed over two evenings.

The first evening featured a quad-bill of Stabbing Bajie (刺巴杰), Mother Longing for Her Missing Son (望儿楼), excerpts from model opera The Red Lantern (红灯记), and Duel. Stabbing focuses on mother Ma avenging her prodigal son’s death, only to find ample resistance along the way. Ma was portrayed by Bai Weichen (白玮琛), whose training as a fighting dan (刀马旦) was deliciously evident as she handled her weaponry with an unfazed briskness and clarity. Her sword movements, weaving through a myriad of attackers, were swift but relentless. The precision of her sword trajectories would make the choreographers in last week’s Romeo and Juliet drool with jealousy. Although her character is that of a passionately angry mother, its inclusion in the lao dan series is interesting, as the role dresses and vocalizes more like a regular dan than that of a lao dan. In Mother, Zhang Lan (张兰) portrayed a mother who, overlooking from a tower, longs for the return of her son, who has been leading troops in far-away lands. Zhang moved about onstage with gravitas, and as she moved from a downstage center position to the tower upstage, she hauled her body with the sort of stagnating viscosity that plainly revealed the heaviness of her maternal worries. One could feel her pain merely by watching her tense body movements and forlorn facial expressions. Her voice, however, could not match her acting, and she tended to draw out her phrases so much that she lost synchronization with the music in a bothersome manner — something that is usually dreaded in lao dan artistry.

In Red Lantern, the part of Grandma Li — a symbolic guardian of the nascent Communist Party’s future — that Tan Xiaoling (谭晓令) had to play would baffle even the top Hollywood actors. In the span of less than twenty minutes, the part has to dramatize fury, melancholy and distress, all the while singing some of the most difficult passages in all of Chinese opera. Tan’s vocals displayed a wide range of  emotions as she deftly moved between top and lower registers and along the entire dynamic range. She was also careful with her phrasing and diction (all-important in model opera, as its primary intention is to propagandize through sung prose). However, she was comparatively weak dramatically, and the makeup department did her no favors by not covering up her porcelain baby face, which was not exactly the proper yardstick for a serious guardian of the Party. In Duel, Yuan Huiqin (袁慧琴) played Jiang Guizhi (姜桂芝), a wife disowned by her husband. A Plummie Winner, Yuan is well-known across the land due to her frequent appearances on CCTV’s music and Chinese opera channels. Her legendary portrayal of the matriarch in Female Warriors of the Yangs was so fiery that the last time I saw it I thought she was going to fly across the audience to give me a good smackin’. In Duel, she practically carried the entire cast with her fearless portrayal of the disowned wife and her determination to clear her name. Her voice was measured and her phrasal placing deliberate. Her timbre carried the kind of regal weight and certainty that instantly settled the question of who was ultimately in charge.


Yuan Huiqin (袁慧琴), as Jiang Guizhi.

The second evening began with Fighting at the Four Guard Gates (杀四门) and ending with Turtle. Fighting, like Stabbing, was not a showcase of lao dan but by no means a cursory time-filler. In Fighting, Wang Lu (王璐) had to fend off multiple groups of bad guys through a series of martial arts. Wang’s movements were clean and precise, and after each whirling routine he would stop into a standstill, with nary a sign of breathlessness or spasm. After he dropped a spear in one extremely difficult routine, he implored his colleagues to let him redo it and then went on to complete the routine perfectly — a gesture that amplified his unfettered professionalism. The Hong Kong audience responded, and recognized Wang with two curtain calls, including a solo one that, while uncharacteristic of Beijing opera’s collaborative psyche, simply showed the depth of Wang’s triumph. The lao dan role of Kang Shi (康氏, or miss Kang) in Turtle was split by Zhang, from the evening before, and Kang Jing (康静), a superstar in the mold of Yuan. The story of Turtle centers around a mother lamenting the mysterious death of one of his sons and her quest to seek justice. The role of Kang Shi is demanding to sing, and the singer must have staying power as she has long-winding passages throughout the piece’s two-hour length. Zhang completed the first chapter in dutiful but unmemorable fashion, while Kang labored through the last three. Towards the end of the last chapter, Kang’ voice sounded slightly flayed and tired. At the curtain call, she looked visibly drained, but should be content that she performed amicably and carried the role with an unimpeachable dignity. Kang Shi is the kind of role that is difficult to please, but extremely satisfying when sung well. In that respect, Kang did just fine.


Yuan Huiqin (袁慧琴), as Kang Shi.

The Arts Festival really should congratulate themselves for programming this series. I’m afraid that in the years that I have been living in Beijing, the honchos at Beijing Opera Troupe have never been able to elevate lao dan as a matter worth exclusively programming for, instead sticking often with tried-and-true commercial workhorses featuring famous regular dans. That said, even with the full backing of the Arts Festival publicity machine, the halls in Hong Kong were barely half full, with plenty of empty seats awaiting audiences in both evenings. For all its artistry and crucial dramatic heft in Beijing opera, lao dans deserve more love.

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