Chinese opera

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:, I Sing Beijing.

Chinese opera

Zhang Jun named UNESCO Artist for Peace

Zhang Jun (张军), dubbed the “prince of Kunqu” for his hot looks and his impeccable mastery of Kunqu, has been named a UNESCO Artist for Peace for his “long-term commitment to promoting” Kunqu. Congratulations to Zhang!

News in Chinese and English. UNESCO press release here.

Zhang Jun (张军).

Zhang Jun (张军).

Zhang Jun (张军).

Zhang Jun (张军).

Chinese opera

Fairy Couple (天仙配)

Date: May 24, 2011
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

Background. The seven daughters of heaven travel to middle earth in search of lovers. The youngest daughter soon falls in love with Dong Yong (董永), a poor lad who enslaves himself to three years of servitude in order to pay for his parents’ funeral. After the daughter marries Dong, she buys Dong Yong’s freedom by weaving, with some heavenly help, 10 scrolls of silk quilts in one evening. Heavenly father soon finds out about this forbidden matrimony, and forces the two lovers to separate. At separation, the daughter laments: “来年春暖花开日, 槐荫树下把子交 / in the spring of next year, return to the tree under which we are married to find your son” – a poetic phrase that has become a symbol of Huangmei tragedy.

Performance. Playing the role of the youngest daughter is Plummie Winner Li Wen (李文). At 42, Li was not, at the surface the most ideal actress to play the role of the youngest sister – her older sisters on stage looked and were probably at least a decade younger than Li. But to declare that Li was unsuitable for the role was as ridiculous as calling Deborah Voigt too fat for Ariadne. If anything, Li inhabited the role with aplomb – her first stage entrance revealed an innocent teenager with such a natural playfulness that cloaked her real age. Her mastery of the role became obvious when she danced in a pas de sept in the first act (of six) with her six sisters: as the seven sisters moved in synchronized unison, Li’s movements were distinctly more fluid, with cleaner breaks separating one dance sequence from the other  than her counterparts. As she metamorphosed from an angel engineering her matrimony with Dong to a faux earthling serving her earthly husband, Li’s visage and body language adapted distinguishably from a prankish to a shy yet mature innocence – that shade of difference, albeit physically minute, conveyed a monumental switch in dramatic direction, and epitomized Li’s aptitude as a stage performer. In the role of Dong was top-class actor Yu Shun (余顺), who seemed to struggle at the beginning with a dry throat but recovered to deliver some juicy passages after intermission, including the famous line in which Dong lamented their inevitable separation: “从空降下无情剑 / the heartless sword befalls”.

Li Wen (李文) and Yu Shun (余顺), in the Huangmei opera classic: Fairy Couple (天仙配).

Li Wen (李文) and Yu Shun (余顺), in the Huangmei opera classic: Fairy Couple (天仙配).

Footnote: The performance is part of a series of Chinese operas staged to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party, to be commemorated on July 1, 2011.

Multimedia samples:

1. Yu Shun, as Dong and Wu Yaling (吴亚玲) as the sister. The sister tries to engineer their first rendezvous, while Dong narrates his background: video.

2. Plummie winner Han Zaifen (韩再芬) and Zhao Chun (赵纯), singing respectively the roles of the sister and Dong after they bought their freedom: video.

3. Farewell scene, by Zhou Li (周莉): video.

4. Tan Chunfang (檀春芳), singing “the heartless sword befalls”: video.

Chinese opera

The Peony Pavilion (牡丹亭)

Date: May 4, 2011
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

Background. Bando Tamasaburo (坂东玉三郎) is a kabuki actor who specializes in onnagata, or women’s roles. In 2006, after watching a performance of The Peony Pavilion, Bando-san fell in love with the art and soon began taking lessons from Zhang Jiqing (张继青), an authority in kunqu performance and the inaugural winner of the Plum Blossom prize. It is not unprecedented for a guy to tackle the female role of Du Liniang (杜丽娘) – most famously, Mei Lanfang (梅兰芳) has done it, to great acclaim. But it is unprecedented that a Japanese onnagata would try a role and in an art form so deeply imbued with ancient Chinese sensibilities. Yet it would be a mistake to underestimate the onnagata – while stage execution may differ, kabuki and kunqu have their similarities – in many ways they often share a similar sentimentality towards a more idyllic past, and tend to extol the virtues of ethereal beauty and ancient customs more than many other art forms. The biggest difficulty Bando-san had to overcome remained with the libretto, which is in Chinese and to be sung in the kun vocal style. After two years of hard work (Bando-san once said that it took him a few months to learn three minutes of the libretto), Bando-san made his debut as Du in Kyoto in 2008, and soon thereafter performed the role in Beijing, Shanghai and then Hong Kong. Dubbed the “Sino-Japanese Peony Pavilion”, this production draws from a pool of top kunqu and theater talents from the two countries.

Performance. The Sino-Japanese Peony Pavilion presented seven chapters in one evening, out of the original’s 55 chapters (which could easily take a few nights to labor through, a la Wagner). Bando-san began the evening by discovering a beautiful garden for the first time and, in the process, delivered perhaps the most famous bit in all of kunqu:

原来姹紫嫣红开遍 / 似这般都付与断井颓垣 / 良辰美景奈何天 / 赏心乐事谁家院. The spring flowers bloom with abandon / next to broken wells and deserted fences / where have the pretty sight and beauty gone? / who in the past has lived in this pleasant and charming place?

As his Du made her new discovery, she started to lament a wasted past, while carrying a facial expression that effused a curious glow yet tempered with a mild air of regret. Within a short passage, Bando-san was able to showcase a complex array of emotions, yet framing all of them within the psyche of the teenage girl he was portraying. By the end, his Du has transformed from a clueless teenager wondering what love was and where to find love, to someone who had all the answers figured out. In the chapter “Union with the Ghost” (幽媾), when Du’s lover, a scholar, expressed love for a woman in the declaration: “姐姐 / my lovely sister!”, Du barely nudged as she was certain that the woman for whom the scholar declared love was no one else but her. The gesture could be read as naive, but when Bando-san portrayed such on stage, Du, neither jumping to ecstasy nor harboring any doubt, simply beamed with a matter-of-factly confidence. She moved slightly towards her lover, as if acknowledging his declaration for her. The lover, played by Yu Jiulin (俞玖林), provided an excellent counterpoint to Bando-san’s Du. Having seen him in Macao for the first time in 2005, I found his acting now more refined, emitting the innocent warmth of a young scholar with more restrained precision than in the past, when he would tend to over-act.

This performance is part of a series of performances celebrating the tenth anniversary of Kunqu’s selection by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Other performances with reviews include: A Collection of Scepters (满床笏), and The Lute Story (琵琶记).

Bando Tamasaburo (坂东玉三郎).

Bando Tamasaburo (坂东玉三郎).

Bando Tamasaburo (坂东玉三郎), in The Peony Pavilion (牡丹亭).

Bando Tamasaburo (坂东玉三郎), in The Peony Pavilion (牡丹亭).

Bando Tamasaburo (坂东玉三郎), in The Peony Pavilion (牡丹亭).

Bando Tamasaburo (坂东玉三郎), in The Peony Pavilion (牡丹亭).

Chinese opera

A Collection of Scepters (满床笏)

Date: May 10, 2011
Location: Beijing University Hall, Beijing.

Background. The comedic story tells the lives of Gong Jing (龚敬) and his wife. He was a high government official who often sought help from her when he faced issues at work. Well educated and highly intelligent, his wife obliged and effectively became the mastermind behind Gong. Without an heir, Gong was cajoled by his deputies into a farcical plan whereby he would secretly harbor a concubine Xiao (肖氏) behind his wife. His wife found out about his devilish little plan, and briskly sent the concubine away. When the husband learned that his plan was foiled, he begged for forgiveness. After considering their marriage and, more importantly, Gong’s political career in relation to the country, she relented and brought Xiao back in a dramatic turnabout.

The entire story has 36 chapters, of which only five were presented in this kunqu production. As far as I understand, a complete staging of all 36 chapters has not been attempted by any opera troupe in modern Chinese history. The story presented in this kunqu production is actually a small episode of the entire story, which tells the life story of Guo Ziyi (郭子仪), whose life is significantly influenced by Gong and his wife. Guo’s success extended to his children, who at his 60th birthday gathered around him and placed their scepters — a symbol of authority in ancient China — at Guo’s bedside.

Performance. Playing the role of the wife was Wang Fang (王芳), a two-time Plum Blossom prize winner. Her portrayal controlled the tempo and the dramatic arc of the evening. Twice in the evening, she uttered the phrase “please follow me to my chambers / 随我进来” to seduce her husband. She said it in a most sultry voice in a most titillating posture without bordering pornographic or slovenly: this represents seduction at its best. In the final scene, after she sent her husband to the concubine’s chamber, she looked simultaneously satisfied and consumed, knowing that while her plan to save her marriage and perhaps the larger context of her husband’s political career succeeded, she had to face the reality that her husband would be sleeping with another woman. As she retired to her chamber, her body shivered uncontrollably, as if finally feeling the pain of her decision. Zhao Wenlin (赵文林) portrayed an innocent but remorseful Gong, as if begging for the audience’s forgiveness, while Weng Yuxian (翁育贤) played an angelic Xiao with an irreproachable demeanor and a cloudless understanding of the situation. As one of Gong’s deputies, Tang Rong (唐荣) labored as a workable muse but lacked a definitive inhabitation of the role. Fatally, Tang’s vocalism carried too strong a Beijing Opera flavor to be considered a serious kunqu performer.

This performance is part of a series of performances celebrating the tenth anniversary of Kunqu’s selection by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. The series includes plenty of delicious goodies, some of which will be reviewed later here at TFS.

Wang Fang (王芳) and Zhao Wenlin (赵文林), in A Collection of Scepters.

Wang Fang (王芳) and Zhao Wenlin (赵文林), in A Collection of Scepters.

Chinese opera

The Lute Story (琵琶记)

Date: May 12, 2011
Location: Changan Theater, Beijing.

Background. The story famously elevates filial and marital duty as a prominent feature of Chinese culture. At his father’s insistence, Cai Bojie (蔡伯喈) abandoned his family and his newly wedded wife to take a national exam in the capital. After acing the exam, Cai was forced by Prime Minister Niu to not only stay in the capital but, in typical ancient Chinese fashion, marry his daughter, Niu Suyu (牛素玉). Trapped in the reality that the prime minister’s words were golden, Cai had no choice but to stay in the capital and marry the younger Niu. Zhao Wuniang (赵五娘), despite having married to Cai for only two months before he left for the capital, took up full responsibility as caretaker of Cai’s parents. Throughout a series of droughts and famine, Zhao slaved through, at times eating chaffs to stay alive. After Cai’s parents died, she began a decade-long (twelve, to be exact) odyssey to the capital in search of Cai. By various strokes of luck and determination, Zhao finally reunited with Cai. Deeply moved by Zhao’s upholding of filial duty and Cai’s unerring love for Zhao, the emperor himself blessed the reunion, while the younger Niu dutifully agreed to stay on as secondary wife. The title refers to how Zhao would play the lute as a street musician to earn her expenses during her odyssey.

Performance. This production is staged and produced by Yongjia Kunqu Opera Troupe (永嘉昆剧团), famously known for presenting kunqu with a unique and unconventional charm. The hand and body movements in Yongjia kunqu (“yongkun” in short) are slightly rougher and less elegant than the kunqu presented by Suzhou Kunqu Opera Theatre (苏州昆剧院), but move with a more humanly, realistic motion. The tempo in yongkun is also slightly faster, and therefore appears livelier and more energetic, than traditional kunqu. Liu Wenhua (刘文华), as Zhao, acted with a deep sense for the role, moving with such seasoned fluidity and singing with such vocal confidence that for the most part camouflaged her advance age of 55 years. The on-stage intensity of her Zhao was clearly the dramatic weight of the evening. Her counterpart, Ma Shili (马士利), was adequate but not particularly noteworthy as Cai. You Tengteng (由腾腾) performed the thankless role of Niu with dedicated conviction, often moving with the same grace and precision as Liu, her teacher. At barely 21 years old, she is surely a rising star in the art, and most certainly is the person to carry Liu’s mantle as the elder master retires from stage.

Liu Wenhua (刘文华), as Zhao Wuniang (赵五娘).

A poster featuring Liu Wenhua (刘文华), as Zhao Wuniang (赵五娘), in The Lute Story (琵琶记).

You Tengteng (由腾腾), as Niu.

You Tengteng (由腾腾).

Chinese opera

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.

Chi Xiaoqiu, in Bird (on Youku).