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.

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.

I Sing Beijing

I Sing Beijing” is a program run by the Hanyu Academy of Vocal Arts and funded by the well-connected Confucius Institute. The program enables foreigners to take a one-month intensive music and language immersion class in Beijing, followed by a performance at one of Beijing’s premier performing halls. This year, the graduating performance will be held at the NCPA, on August 18. I look forward to hearing the fruits of this wonderful program!

The 2011 participants aren’t exactly novices in singing. In fact, there’s one Adler fellow, a couple of winners at recent regional Met National Council auditions, and plenty others who have done duties at various reputable houses around the world. Here is the inaugural list of invitees:

Maria Antunez, Soprano
Hometown: Charleston, South Carolina
Training: College of Charleston School of Arts.

Katie Bolding, Soprano
Hometown: Arcadia, Oklahoma
Training: State University of New York at Purchase; Taos Opera Institute; Aub Vocal Institute; Opera Festival di Roma.

Melisa Bonetti, Mezzo
Hometown: Corona, New York
Training: Aaron Copland School of Music.

Nicholas Brownlee, Bass-Baritone
Hometown: Mobile, Alabama
Training: University of South Alabama; Mobile Opera Developing Artists..

Sheila Carroll, Soprano
Hometown: Lock Haven, Pennsylvania
Training: Manhattan School of Music; Westminster Choir College; Université Paris Sorbonne (summer)

Evgenia Chaverdova, Mezzo
Hometown: San Francisco, California
Training: San Francisco Conservatory of Music; San Francisco Opera Theater; De Nederlandse Opera Studio Young Artist Program; Joan Dornemann’s International Vocal Arts Institute; Daniel Ferro Vocal Program.

Prenicia Clifton, Soprano
Hometown: Kansas City, Missouri
Training: University of Wisconsin at Madison; University of Missouri at Kansas City.

Giuseppe Distefano, Tenor
Hometown: Paterno, Catania, Italy
Training: Conservatory “Francesco Cilea”, Reggio Calabria, Italy; Institute “Vincenzo Bellini”, Catania; lessons with tenor Nicola Martinucci.

Ge Han (葛涵), Soprano
Hometown: Changsha, Hunan Province, China
Training: Shanghai Conservatory; Sichuan Conservatory; Zhou Xiaoyan International Opera Center.

Thomas Glen, Tenor
Hometown: San Francisco, California
Training: Adler Fellowship at San Francisco Opera; Brigham Young University; University of Michigan.

Valdis Jansons, Baritone
Hometown: Riga, Latvia
Training: Conservatory of Parma, Italy; Accademia Rossiniana, Pesaro, Italy; Accademia Pucciniana, Torre del Lago, Italy.

Max Souza Jota de Queiroz, Tenor
Hometown: Recife, Brazil
Training: Universita Federale della Paraiba, Brazil; Scuola dell’Opera Italiana, Bologna, Italy.

Kurt Sanchez Kanazawa, Baritone
Hometown: Los Angeles, California
Training: Columbia University; Columbia Music Performance Program; Chautauqua Institute; CCM Opera Lucca, Italy.

Gabriele Mangione, Tenor
Hometown: Soleto, Province of Lecce, Italy
Training: Conservatory of Perugia, Italy; Master classes with Francisco Araiza and Luciano Pavarotti.

Maria McDaniel, Mezzo
Hometown: Atlanta, Georgia
Training: Millikin University; Georgia State University; Chautauqua Opera; Harrower Summer Opera; La Musica Lirica, Urbania, Italy.

Emma McNairy, Soprano
Hometown: Austin, Texas
Training: San Francisco Conservatory of Music; Bay Area Summer Opera Theater Institute; Opera in the Ozarks; Austrian-American Mozart Academy; The Bel Canto Institute, Florence, Italy.

Julia Metzler, Soprano
Hometown: Glendale, California
Training: San Francisco Conservatory of Music; San Francisco Choral Society; Aspen Music Festival; Idyllwild Arts Summer Festival.

Octavio Moreno, Baritone
Hometown: Hermosillo, Mexico
Training: Houston Grand Opera Studio; Academy of Vocal Arts, Philadelphia; Universidad de Sonora.

Evis Mula, Soprano
Hometown: Tirana, Albania
Training: Academy of Teatro alla Scala, Milan; Academy of Fine Arts, Tirana.

Juliet Petrus, Soprano
Hometown: Farmington, Michigan
Training: University of Michigan; Northwestern University; Glimmerglass Opera American Young Artist Program; Opera Carolina; Sarasota Opera.

Brian Wahlstrom, Baritone
Hometown: San Diego, California
Training: University of California San Diego; Manhattan School of Music.

Wang Chuanyue (王传越), Tenor
Hometown: Kiamusze, China
Training: Central Conservatory; Okazaki International Voice Master Class; Brasov Opera House Training Program, Romania.

Yunpeng Wang (王云鹏), Baritone
Hometown: Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, China
Training: Central Conservatory.

Yang Xi (杨皙), Mezzo
Hometown: Fushun, Liaoning Province, China
Training: Central Conservatory.

Yu Guanqun (于冠群), Soprano
Hometown: Yantai, Shangdong Province, China
Training: Shanghai Conservatory, Scuola dell’Opera Italiana di Bologna, Italy.

Zhao Ming (赵明), Bass
Hometown: Kaifeng, Henan Province, China
Training: Central Conservatory; China Conservatory.

Sources: China.org.cn, I Sing Beijing.

The Migrating Bird (孔雀东南飞)

Date: May 2, 2011
Location: Changan Theater, Beijing.

Background. The Migrating Bird / The Peacock Flies Southeast (alt.) is based on an epic poem written in the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589 A.D.). The poem, with exactly 356 phrases, each having exactly five characters, is considered by many to be the first narrative poetry in the Chinese language. The story begins by introducing a married couple: Liu Lanzhi (刘兰芝), a lovable housewife, and Jiao Zhongqing (焦仲卿), a government official. Jiao’s mother never quite approves of their matrimony, and is openly choleric towards her daughter-in-law. Eventually, she also manages to orchestrate their divorce, after which Liu is sent back to her hometown and slated to be remarried to the son of a high government official. Vowed never to be remarried again, Liu decked out in splendid matrimonial wear and, just before the wedding, drowned herself to death. After learning of Liu’s death, Jiao was devastated and later also committed suicide. The Chinese title, “孔雀东南飞”, comes from the first two verses of the poem: “孔雀东南飞,五里一徘徊”, which refers to how migrating birds in mid-flight often turn back to look for each other. These two verses, coupled with the final stanza (see below), set the tone for the relationship between the two characters:

“两家求合葬,合葬华山傍 / 东西植松柏,左右种梧桐 / 枝枝相覆盖,叶叶相交通 / 中有双飞鸟,自名为鸳鸯 / 仰头相向鸣,夜夜达五更。”

The two finally reunited, in adjacent burial grounds / Cypress and phoenix trees standing by in eternity / Branches intertwined, leaves mingled / Therein rest two birds, a pair of mandarin ducks / To each other they listen, till the wee hours of the night.

Performance. Chen Moxiang (陈墨香), one of the most prolific Beijing Opera scriptwriters and a frequent collaborator with Cheng Yanqiu (程砚秋), adapted the poem into the standard opera repertory in 1932. Chen’s version was generally faithful to the original poem, only slightly altering the ending to allow the lovebirds to be reunited one last time, before they held hands and drowned together. Chi Xiaoqiu (迟小秋), as Liu, was fearless in her portrayal and impeccably fluid in her delivery. Her on-stage agility, coupled with the acute crispiness of her phrasings offered a model exhibit of Cheng-clan artistry. Bao Fei (包飞), as Jiao, was authoritative and focused, and weaved through some of his difficult lines with apparently very little effort. Mei Qingyang (梅庆羊) provided some comic relief as the theatrical muse playing Jiao’s mother. A playful conversational interchange between Mei and Chi’s characters marked the dramatic focal point of the evening, in which the elder tried to embarrass the younger by assigning the younger the impossible task of placing a lamp in a small room with very little space, only later to realize that in the process the elder could not offer a counter-solution and thereby putting herself in an awkward, frying-in-her-own-grease moment. The ebb and flow of the dramatic energy between the two, coupled with swift circular stage movements, epitomized the strength of the cast and clarity of the night’s execution.

The story is nothing less than a direct criticism of feudal society where parental wishes trumped individual choices back in the days (and I can safely say that some flavor of this feudal society is still prevalent in today’s rural China). The ending was depressing, but necessary as a means to set free from the historical status quo. Perhaps in an attempt to lift the audience out of such morbid melancholia and end the night on a more positive note, Chi sang a highly-charged encore from Magnolia (玉堂春), to rapturous applause.

http://player.youku.com/player.php/sid/XMTgyNDc2Njg=/v.swf

Chi Xiaoqiu, in Bird (on Youku).

Go West (走西口)

Date: May 6, 2010

Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

Go West

Shanxi Province Peking Opera Troupe's production of Go West.

Background. The story of Go West is set in the middle of Qing dynasty, during a period when trade routes between China and Russia were significantly expanded. Chang Yuqiao (常雨桥), a honest sesame oil trader from Shanxi, got into trouble when one of his employees shirked and mixed lower grade oil into top grade oil. To save his reputation, Chang recalled, repurchased, and set ablaze all the bad oil. That act put a significant dent to Chang’s finances, and just as his business was running to the ground, Zhong Xueer (钟雪儿), an old enemy-turned-trusted confidant, offered her helping hands, and when an old friend learned of Chang’s plight, he offered his help, eventually turning around Chang’s fortunes. The story highlights the comradeship of Shanxi traders – a virtue that continues to this day.

Performance. Theatricality of this new production is not subtle: this is a modern production with complex lighting schemes and a colorful array of costumes. Lighting designer Ma Lu (马路) provided a rapidly changing series of colors, painting the set into shades of red, blue, yellow and other colors. In the scene in which Chang’s inventory was burned to the ground, a glowing red light was used to flood the stage, thereby casting Chang’s fortunes to a state of temporary filth. The singing by Yu Kuizhi (于魁智) was impeccable, and he was able to go through Chang’s difficult top notes with ease. When Yu sang “号规如山” / “our brand rules are everything” with authority and regal power, he left no doubt that the corner-cutting employee was not going to get a free pass for his mistake. Li Shengsu (李胜素), who are often partnered with Yu in Chinese opera productions, sang the role of Zhong. In the stanza “往事历历在眼前” / “imagery of the past rolls in front of my eyes”, Li sang with conviction and panache, and hit a lyrical stride so much so that she seemed capable of doing just about anything. The rest of the cast was solid, including Zhu Li (朱丽), who sang the role of Chang’s mother with sheer confidence. Dramatist Zhang Xiaoya (张晓亚) has crafted an accessible human story, and prudently stayed clear of the burden of complex imperial history. The way the stage is designed – with simple and readily transportable elements – means that it would likely travel to reach a larger audience. If audience reception here in Beijing could serve as any guide, the larger audience would most certainly receive the new production with delight.

Li Shengsu in Go West

Li Shengsu in Go West.

Unicorn Purse (锁麟囊)

Date: January 3, 2010
Location: Changan Theater, Beijing.

Background. A unicorn purse is a bag of matrimonial jewelry gifted to the bride by the mother of the bride in ancient China to bring her fertility. Unicorn Purse, the Beijing opera, refers to a dramatic comedy about Xue Xiangling (薛湘灵), a well-to-do bride whose fate takes a wrong turn when a flood wipes out her wealth and possessions. Worse, she becomes separated from her family and, facing homelessness she resorts to seeking refuge at a rich family in a town nearby. In a comedic turnabout, the matriarch of the rich family is Zhao Shoujing (赵守贞), whose fortune has been built on top of the treasures in a unicorn purse, which was given to her, in her most impoverish days, by an anonymous donor. That anonymous donor, of course, is Xue. Zhao would eventually restore Xue’s good fortunes in a happy ending. In short, the story extols the virtues of doing good.

Performance. Zhao is portrayed adequately by Lu Tong (鲁彤), who delivers a splendid top vocal range but lacks dramatic weight relative to her peers. Huang Baixue (黄柏雪) brings plenty of comedy as he plays Mei Xiang (梅香), a female chou character who brings down the house with plenty of modern-day references, including “I’ll go online now” after she is dismissed by her master, and a reference to “January 3, 2010” as she marks the date when Xue and Zhao reconcile.

But the night belongs to Guo Wei (郭伟). She plays Xue Xiangling, a character most definitively portrayed by Cheng Yanqiu (程砚秋) and his students. Guo, following Cheng’s traditions, renders a somber, pensive figure whose heart-warming magnanimity is well veiled behind a languishing melancholy. Her starkly-drawn eye brows and pin-pointedly attentive eyes lend dramatic credence to her naive, porcelain face. My heart aches just to see her Xue overwhelmed by, even if merely for a small section of 2.5-hour drama, an unrelenting force of misfortune. Her interjection:

苦哇——- / “What tormenting life….”

is vocally dramatic and sensually mesmerizing. Given that Changan’s audience is quite possibly the stingiest in Chinese opera, the intervening round of thunderous applause is a testament to Guo’s stature as a flag-bearing authority of Cheng’s artistry. Granted, when she navigates her carriage through the storm (in which she would meander across the stage with two poles, one on each side of her body to signify a wheeled carriage), she reminds me of a kindergartener encircling the play room in a toy Buick – a far cry from Zhang Huoding (张火丁)’s fluidic motions of aerodynamic clarity and expansive elliptical beauty. Zhang, a few years Guo’s senior, is considered to be a leading performer in the Cheng mold. But with Zhang and many others in the Cheng clan now retired or soon retiring from performing, and with Guo getting more commercial bookings, I won’t be too surprised if Guo (33 years old this year) will soon be recognized as a leading source of Cheng’s artistry.

Unicorn Purse: curtain call.

Guo Wei (郭伟).

River Lookout (望江亭)

Date: January 2, 2010
Location: Changan Theater, Beijing.

Background. River Lookout, written by playwright Guan Hanqing (关汉卿), is basically a comedy drama featuring plenty of witty and verbal interlocutions. It details the story of Tan Jier (谭记儿), who has been hiding inside a Taoist Abbey to avoid an unsolicited paramour. One day she meets Bai Shizhong (白士中), the nephew of the abbey’s leader. They instantly fall in love, elope but run into the fury of the paramour, the aristocrat Yang Yanei (杨衙内), who obtains forged imperial documents seeking his competition’s — i.e. Bai’s — head. Furthermore, he manages to smuggle from the Imperial Palace a gold medallion which allows him to take anybody’s head — in this case, Bai’s. Upon learning of Yang’s murderous plans, Tan dresses as a fisherman at the River Lookout, gets Yang drunk, and steals from Yang the forged documents and the golden medallion. When Yang’s atrocious plan is finally unveiled, Yang is thoroughly embarrassed and disgraced, while Bai and Tan live happily ever after.

Performance. Tan Jier is a character full of vivacity and wit, and is most famously portrayed by the Zhang-clan (张派), which combines the velvet luxury of Mei (梅) and the fluidity of Cheng (程), and favors an agile coloratura delivery. The artistry of the Zhang-clan is best represented by none other than Wang Rongrong (王蓉蓉), an exhilarating performer whom I’ve seen a few times last year: as 武则天, as 吕雉 in 《下鲁城》 and as 阿庆嫂 in 《沙家浜》. The evening hits a number of euphoric highs, including a spectacular series of top notes in “见狂徒不由我怒满胸怀” / “Ablazed with anger when I the maniac encounter” and “妾身自有锦囊计,管叫他海底捞月空自欺” / “your wife has the perfect plan, to foil his and his self-serving delusions” (my translations). When Bai first runs into Tan at the abbey, Tan expresses her affection for Bai with a subtle poem:

愿把春情寄落花,随风冉冉到天涯。君能识破凤兮句,去妇当归卖酒家。/ “My love shall etch with falling flowers, which shall flutter to the end of the world. If sire can decipher this poem, yours truly shall follow.”

When the first word of each verse is put together, a phrase reads: 愿随君去 / “I shall follow you, sire.” Ecstatic over Tan’s response, Bai reverberates with an equally crafty missive:

当垆卓女艳如花,不负琴心走天涯。负却今朝花底约,卿须怜我尚无家。/ “She is gifted as she is ethereally beautiful, but does not mind traveling with the poor scholar. The lady shall have pity on this sire.”

Without delving too deeply into the historical context, the response smartly echoes the historical context brought forth by Tan’s. More significantly, the first words of the verses read: 当不负卿 / “I shall never let you down”. This poetic interchange basically sums up to an ancient analogy of a girl’s “Yes I do” after a guy’s proposal, followed by the guy’s promise of “I won’t let you down”.

Wang’s performance lights up the house, which evidently includes a lot of her rabid fans. Time and again the whole crowd stands on its feet, roaring with approval and completely awed by Wang’s vocal agility and dramatic acuity. Bao Fei (包飞) delivers a strong performance as Bai, although he sounds overwhelmed especially when juxtaposed against Wang’s much more powerful, confident voice. Yang is played by Sun Zhen (孙震), a fine, young actor with plenty of comedic genes who brings down the house with his recitative in the penultimate scene. The imperial symbol is signified in this production by a sword instead of a gold medallion. Depending on the troupe or the literature source, one may find different objects used as this imperial symbol, but that’s a minor detail that hardly gets in the way of the story flow.

The only letdown of the evening is perhaps the lack of a second – and, in my opinion, very much deserved – curtain call. This oversight is partially due to the end time (just after 10pm) and much of the crowd shooting for the nearest exit in a snowing evening in Beijing. Regardless, this wonderful performance marks a great start to my 2010 season, which hopefully will be just as good as, if not better than, 2009’s. Happy new year to all!!!

River Lookout: lookout scene, with Yang piss drunk on the floor and Tan readying her get-away.

River Lookout: curtain call, with Yang (played by Sun), Tan (Wang), and Bai (Bao).