Chinese opera

Chrysanthemum (金葉菊)

Date: August 2, 2014
Location: Ko Shan Theatre, Hong Kong.

Troupe: Haifeng Baizi Opera Troupe of Guangdong (廣東海豐縣白字戲劇團)

Hailufeng Baizi (海陸豐白字戲) is a regional operatic art form still loved by local folks along the northeastern coast of Guangdong Province. Its origins can be traced back to late Yuan/early Ming Dynasty, when dialectic singing theatre from the neighboring Fujian Province started to make its way down the coast. Unlike other flavors of Chinese operas, where the libretto’s language often adheres to the prevailing official parlance of the time, Baizi is literalized from local speak and influenced by folk music. The regionalization of this art form makes it quite different from the body of work descending from and influenced by Beijing Opera/Kunqu. However, because of the compartmentalized nature of the region’s social culture, Baizi has never found a broad audience. In face of today’s onslaught of media and entertainment, the demand for Baizi’s artistry has waned in recent years.

Baizi proliferated at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, and its repertoire has realigned accordingly. After a brief extinction towards the end of the Cultural Revolution, it resurrected, and one of the first operas to regain prominence on stage was Chrysanthemum (金葉菊), a story about justice and revenge. The story tells of a duke named Ma Yinglong (馬應龍) who had to fight an uphill battle against the treasonous instincts of Emperor Wanli’s relatives. Lin Tianyi (林天義), a loyal servant of a good general slain by the Emperor’s treasonous relative, entered the service of the treasonous camp a la Infernal Affairs to unearth evidence of treason. The daughter of the good general, Lin Yuejiao (林月嬌), after many years of banishment, reconnected with servant Lin and, together with Ma, eventually managed to foil the treachery of the bad camp, though not without significant loss of lives. Yu Jincheng (余錦程), Director of the Troupe, impressed in the role of Ma with clean delivery of his lines and a commanding stage presence – in a role that requires plenty of both. As the servant Lin, Yu Haiping (余海平), Deputy Director of the Troupe, portrayed one of unrelenting loyalty. Ma Sixiang (馬四香) had a good evening as daughter Lin: singing with grace and performing with a glowing stage presence. The letdown came mainly from Yu Ronggui (余榮貴)’s Emperor, who could not present prestige and stature, even for a diminished and severely flawed character. The production also exposed the downside of an art form untainted with the strict regimen of Beijing Opera/Kunqu: tables and chairs were set too close together (the Emperor had to use his legs to slide the chair away from the table before he could squeeze in – a serious faux pas in Chinese operatic arts). Various character actors (including imperial guards) looked like extras who have not had enough rehearsals and seemed dazzled and confused on stage. Dialectic differences and cultural compartmentalization may have contributed to the art form’s relative obscurity, but a lax approach to staging and discipline could also be non-trivial contributors.

For all of Baizi’s long history and cultural significance, it needs and deserves preservation. It’s up to those on stage and the patronage network off it to ensure its survival. Nevertheless, Hong Kong audiences should be glad that their Government, with its generous financial support, was at least willing to take up its share of the bargain.

Chrysanthemum, by Haifeng Baizi Opera Troupe of Guangdong. Yu Ronggui (left) as Emperor, and Yu Jincheng (right) as Ma.

Chrysanthemum, by Haifeng Baizi Opera Troupe of Guangdong. Yu Ronggui (left) as Emperor, and Yu Jincheng (right) as Ma. Photo Credit: Chinese Opera Festival/LCSD.

Chrysanthemum (金葉菊).

Chrysanthemum (金葉菊).

Chinese opera

Reconciliation (解怨记)

Date: November 9, 2013
Location: Chi Lin Hall at Chi Lin Nunnery, Hong Kong.

Reconciliation, a new Kunqu opera adapted from a Buddhist sutra, tells the ancient Indian story of King Dighiti. King Brahmadatta, a neighbor, frequently waged wars with King Dighiti because his land lacked the kind of fertile resources that King Dighiti’s kingdom enjoyed. Despite always coming out victorious, the kind-hearted King Dighiti surrendered his throne to his neighbor lest he be further witness to war-related bloodshed and suffering. King Brahmadatta repaid the goodwill by capturing and then killing the good king. Before the good king’s death, he advised his son, Dighavu, to lead his life with tolerance and forgiveness. As time went by, Dighavu found himself with opportunities to avenge his father’s death, but stopped short each time because the spirit of his father would appear to reiterate his advice. When King Brahmadatta finally realized the grace of the father and son, he repented and gave his daughter’s hand to Dighavu. With the marriage came peace and prosperity between the two formerly warring states.

The premise of the sutra is simple enough: to resolve grievance and injustice through tolerance and forgiveness. When two-time Plummie winner Lin Weilin (林为林) put his hands on the story, he attempted to make it as accessible as possible but left very little room for imagination and character development. The sutra places very little emphasis on the wars, yet Lin directed a long series of acrobatics aimed at depicting the warring states. While the athletic spectacle was visually stunning, it was long and often redundant, especially the multiple flips (翻跌) and endless spear fights (对枪). The sutra only gives passing mention to King Dighiti’s queen, but in Lin’s version, the queen, played here by the beautiful Xu Yanfen (徐延芬), had enough set pieces to introduce a character, but not nearly enough to develop the character or the story. Tragically, as good as Xu the dramatist could be (see here), her best dramatic moment was neither sung nor acted: instead, as she was about to give up her throne, she stood silently with her husband downstage while a recorded voice-over sang the couple’s fate. Xu should have been given a chance to shine at that moment. Cheng Weibing (程伟兵)’s King Dighiti was often found speaking with a sermonic, almost god-like attitude, and did not seem to project a kind of earthly sensibilities that one would expect from a human. The fact that King Dighiti was being sanctified here only diminished his potential as a humanized voice of compassion. Only King Brahmadatta, played by Hu Linan (胡立楠), seemed to carry his evil all the way to the end. Xiang Weidong (项卫东), as Dighavu, found maturity at the end but did not seem to develop it leading to that point.

The best moment all evening happened at the very beginning, when a guqin player and a Chinese flutist rendered a lyrical, almost celestial Brahmic chant, written by Yao Gongbai (姚公白), Chi Lin’s resident composer. The Brahmic chant was an appropriate prelude vehicle because its cleansing effect resonated with the reconciliation theme.

Cheng Weibing (程伟兵), as King Dighiti.

Cheng Weibing (程伟兵), as King Dighiti.

Chinese opera

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.

Chinese opera

Romance of the West Chamber (西厢记)

Date: January 25, 2013
Location: Sunbeam Theatre, Hong Kong.

Towards the end of each Lunar year, when the weather gets freezing cold throughout the land, opera troupes in China perform a ceremony in which opera gods are worshipped and performers’ costumes and opera librettos are placed in a chest, which would remain locked until the new year begins and when the weather becomes more palatable for performances, which back in the old days were held on open-air stages. In rare circumstances, similar ceremonies are performed when one or more performers decide to retire a role so that their students or understudies could have their chances on stage. At Sunbeam tonight, a rare, generational passing-of-the-torch ceremony was held amid a sold-out audience.

The performers retiring their roles in Romance of the West Chamber belong to the Zhejiang Xiaobaihua Yue Opera Troupe (浙江小百花越剧团). These performers aren’t just the average run-of-the-mill performers who toil night after night in China’s opera circuit – they are the Yue opera equivalent of USA basketball’s Dream Team: Plummie winners Mao Weitao (茅威涛), Chen Huiling (陈辉玲) and Dong Kedi (董柯娣), and Yan Jia (颜恝), a celebrated huadan performer who has emigrated to Australia years ago but came out of de facto retirement so that she can properly and ceremoniously retire her role in the opera. If the constellation of Mao, Chen and Dong represents the cream of the crop in all of Yue opera, Mao would be its singly shining star. A three-time Plummie winner (including a Grand Plum), Mao is the troupe head of the Zhejiang Xiaobaihua and is considered by critics to be Yue opera’s spiritual and supreme embodiment. As a young girl, Mao failed her college matriculation exams and had to choose a fallback, then-less-lucrative career path in dramatic arts. Thirty years onwards, she has not only made a name for herself in the arts but has made modern Yue opera as much about her as she is about it. The fact that she decides to retire one of her signature roles – Zhang Sheng (张生) in Romance – also reflects the timing reality that many of today’s superstars in Chinese operas who grew up and flourished during three decades of post-Mao (Zedong) economic reform are reaching, or, for some who labor in vocally taxing roles, well past their retirement age.

To be sure, retirement ceremonies have been performed in the past year by Xiaobaihua in many cities throughout China. But the ceremony in Hong Kong this week holds special significance because Sunbeam was the location in Hong Kong where Xiaobaihua performed in their 1984 inaugural season – a significant achievement for a newly found Chinese opera troupe in an era when overseas travel by Chinese citizens would likely expense a strenuous amount of political and financial capital.

The story of Romance of the West Chamber is well known, and will not be reiterated here. That said, because Yue opera constitutes only female performers, Yue opera’s version of Romance requires a female performer who can recreate the complicated male character of Zhang, the intelligent yet occasionally clownish young scholar of proletarian origins who has to find a way to win the affection of not just Cui Yingying (崔莺莺), a beautiful and smart woman, but also Cui’s mother, who demands her daughter’s betrothal to be nothing less than aristocratic and monetarily handsomely.

Zhang is typically portrayed in Chinese opera (not just Yue style, but in Kunqu and Beijing Opera) as a clueless but fearless lover who would do anything to win the hands of Cui. Tonight, Mao assertively portrayed a Zhang who was naïve in the art of human affection but resolute in search of it. Yan retained a gorgeous voice despite her retirement, and flowed through her lyrical passages of Cui as if she never left China’s opera scene. Chen, with acute eye contact and a formidable stage presence, held the crucial role of the chamber maid Hong Niang (红娘) with the role’s signature blend of genuine naiveté and canny street smarts. Dong executed the role of Cui’s mother with a persevering gusto and an aura of stubborn authority. Her voice, flourishing with a hint of masculine steadfastness, revealed her training as a laosheng (老生).

The retirement ceremony occurred after the performance, which lasted nearly two hours without intermission. Cantopop singer Liza Wang (汪明荃), a cult figure in Hong Kong who drew loud and rabid cheers from the audience, MCed the ceremony and explained the historical significance of the retirement ceremonies. Like the metropolitan version of the Kunqu story, the courtship between Zhang and Cui left more to be desired, as it never bothered to achieve sexual consummation in totem, at least in spirit, without Zhang’s triumphant but necessary return following a painful separation scene (长亭) that marks the end of the Yue opera. Unlike Kunqu’s metropolitan version, however, Mao’s Zhang asserted more scenic control, with a more intense projection of the character’s theatrical significance than in either Kunqu or Beijing Opera.

Youku: link.

Chinese opera

Adding Eyes to a Dragon (畫龍點睛)

Date: January 20, 2013
Location: Sunbeam Theatre, Hong Kong.

Near the end of the Beijing opera, “Adding Eyes to a Dragon”, there appears a moment when Emperor Li concludes that governance failures abound in his sprawling empire, and that much remains to be done: “吏治不清大唐江山難久長…閉目塞聽官風民情難執掌…任賢才共大計重振朝綱 / The empire shall not last if not administered well…blindly listening to field reports is hardly good governance…strong talent must be recruited to reform the government” (Youtube). That moment is celebrated in any anthology of Beijing opera, not only for its robust yet exquisite Ma-clan (馬派) artistry, but also for its naked exposition of the piece’s raison d’etre – a Beijing opera vehicle for making a political point.

That point was first made in 1990, not long after corruption and increased inflation pressures disgruntled a nation and led to the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident. The political elite, seeing a real threat to their power, set in motion a series of reforms in the 90s that formed the basis of today’s modern China. “Adding Eyes to a Dragon” is a product of that period, not unlike how model operas were ideological vehicles during the heyday of the Cultural Revolution, in which ideology and the promise of change were just as important as change itself.

The story, originated from The Book of Tang Dynasty “新唐書”, focuses on Ma Zhou (馬周), a policy whiz who dares to criticize the Emperor and would rather labor in anonymity than be the political machine’s yes man: “不逐蝇利不担心…不伺候昏君 / I won’t play their game of corruption…I won’t work for an idiotic leader”. Emperor Li, impressed by Ma’s straight-shooting frankness and hoping to include the reform-minded Ma in his government, begins an adventurous trip to personally recruit Ma. It is during this trip that the emperor discovers all the societal ills and corruption embroiling his nation, culminating in that famous moment when his determination to reform becomes iron-clad.

The relationship between Ma and the emperor gains prominence not merely because Chairman Mao famously remarked, in his Notes to Chinese History, that the incorruptible Ma was one of Chinese history’s finest political operators, but also because Mao’s successors amidst the ruins of the Tiananmen Square incident urgently needed something to rally a nation. Interestingly, the opera includes a feminine figure and a metaphor for the common folk, Zhang Siniang (張四娘), who despite her dubious past and her gender was resolute not only in forging her own path in love but in standing up against evil power. Her eventual sacrifice emboldens Ma and the emperor to do good.

The current production, a 2011 revival of the one done in the early 90s, aims to ensure that the opera’s artistry gets a generational make-over, now that the previous performers are way into their retirements. The stellar cast of Zhang Xinyue (張馨月) as Zhang, Chen Junjie (陈俊杰) as Ma, Huang Baixue (黄柏雪) as the evil politician and Zhu Qiang (朱强) as the emperor, is young, energetic, and all flag-bearers of their respective performing clans. Zhang’s fluid stage movements and tender vocals reveal her Mei-clan lineage. Chen’s portrayal of Ma is a fiery showcase of Qiu-clan flamboyance, while Huang’s characterization of a scheming, devilish, win-at-all-cost politician has hallmarks of the quintessential Beijing opera clown. Zhu, presently the superstar flag-bearer of Ma-clan artistry, embodies both the sophistication of an empire leader and the everyday sense of the common man. “Adding Eyes to a Dragon”, though not strictly speaking a model opera (which by definition must be conceived during the Cultural Revolution), has all the elements to be a most fine one. The timing of this revival also conveniently matches the generational leadership change in Chinese politics: political pundits should take note.

Youtube: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.