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.

The Noble Choice (状元未了情)

Date: January 9, 2010
Location: Changan Theater, Beijing.

The Noble Choice.

Background. The Noble Choice is a cruel piece. From the get-go, the protagonist is thoroughly tormented: his benefactor brutally murdered, his wife taken away to slavery, and a dear confidante violated. On top of all, he is offered a Faustian bargain out of which he must make a choice. Yang Xuejun (杨雪筠), the center character, finds himself in this uncomfortable situation not long after he marries his childhood sweetheart, Tang Meifen (唐梅芬), whose father, the benefactor, has groomed and nurtured Yang since childhood. Before they even get to consummate their marriage, Yang is sent on a business trip by imperial command. During the trip, Tang’s father has been murdered, and Tang has been forcibly ushered into the palace to become an imperial maid. Upon inquiry, Yang finds out that the Emperor’s daughter, longing to have Yang as her consort, has been masterminding the series of events. At the critical juncture of this tragic drama, Yang is presented with these choices: marry the princess out of respect to sovereignty, or choose conscience and face the consequences, perhaps fatal, of disobedience.

Performance. Director Shi Yukun (石玉昆) uses small objects on stage not to dominate but to accentuate the flavors of the drama. At the opening of Act III, for example, a stone mill is presented on stage to convey the location of Tang’s new role as an imperial maid. The mill also provides a clever way for separating dueling actors narrating private thoughts to the audience, often with them standing on opposite sides and the oblivious party looking away from the narrator. Shi offers various expressive delights, including the scene where a devilish eavesdropper is to shatter what remains of Yang’s escape chances. The eavesdropper hides behind an archway throughout Yang’s tell-all dialogue with Tang, and only places a leg under the archway and shows his face for a brief second or two, with the spot light on cue, at the very end of that dialogue, as if on cue in a Hitchcock thriller. By then, the audience knows that Yang’s fate is sealed, and is left to wonder not whether there will be a happy ending but whether such situation — entirely believable as it is — will ever happen to them.

The story’s tragedy beauty centers around the interplay between innocent love’s purity and villainous power’s insensitivity, with the former slowly but surely defiled by the latter. Xiao Ya (萧雅) enters her second night of performance at Changan with a searing portrayal of Yang, embroiled in the middle of this turmoil and obligated to decide what to do with his life. Wu Caihong (吴彩虹) adds plenty of dramatic heft to the production by portraying a sensual Tang, who caps the drama of the evening with her scathing indictment of authority and life’s betrayal. Set to buoyant music, Wu and Xiao team up in Act I to deliver a lyrical love duet:

竹青青带雪翠,梅幽幽望春归。心心相印情意深,天长地久永相随 / “As snow flakes adorn green bamboo shoots, plum blossoms silently await the return of spring. Our hearts attached and our love resonated, we shall stand forever at each other’s shadow.”

Here, still unbeknownst to the imminent tragedy, the two characters sing to a life of passion and happiness together. The same verses are repeated at the very end of the opera, albeit set to a much darker, somber melody, in a sarcastic attempt to contrast a life that was and a life that shall be. Zhang Yingchao (张颖超), playing Tang’s chambermaid and the dear confidante, steals the show by exemplifying the psyche of this drama: seamless alternation between an innocent teenage playfulness and a stubborn resolve even as she is swirled by fate into the tragedy. Her sweet, melodic voice and a fine, pacifying timbre provide her with the right tools to make her character as believable as she is.

This cross-road as collision course puts the innocence of a powerless individual against the domineering, insensitive might of feudal power, and sets the stage for drawing a line between what an individual can overcome and what one shall not be transgressed. Between yesterday’s Interrogating and today’s Choice, the theme is unmistakable: given the power that be, what to do?

What Up, and Where You At? (盘妻索妻)

Date: January 8, 2010
Location: Changan Theater, Beijing.

Background. If your wife tells you that you ain’t gonna consummate your marriage until three years after your nuptial — and later reveals that she also plans to kill your parents — the first word that comes to your mind is probably not “reconciliation”. But this is Chinese opera, and reconciliation is exactly what Liang Yushu (梁玉书) seeks in front of his ill-intentioned wife, Xie Yunxia (谢云霞). Xie is the orphaned daughter of parents who were brutally murdered by a corrupt imperial chancellor and his wife. When Xie realizes that the chancellor is Liang’s father, she coldly distances from Liang but plans to use the marriage as a stepping stone for carrying out her deadly revenge. Clueless about his father’s murderous past and eager to find out the reason behind Xie’s sudden apathy, Liang interrogates Xie until he gets to the truth, to which he sympathizes. They reconcile, but when Liang returns after a trip to Beijing, he finds not only that a secret order to have Xie’s head has been issued by his father but also that Xie has left with the presumption that Liang has divulged to his father her identity and intentions. After a frenetic search, Liang finds Xie and maintains his innocence. After reconciling once more and then concluding that earthly revenge is not worth their time and effort, they elope together, away from a heartless and corrupting society.

Performance. Playing the male character of Liang is Ms. Xiao Ya (萧雅), a Plum Blossom prize winner and a top student of Yue master Yin Guifang (尹桂芳), whose style, among others, focuses on rhythmizing and then melodizing spoken narratives. Interrogating and Searching for the Wife (my lousy translation of the opera’s Chinese title, but at least more proper than “What Up, and Where You At?”) provides plenty of opportunity to display Yin’s style as the characters move from spoken dialogues to rhythmized dialogues and then to fully melodized delivery. During the nuptial, Xiao sings with a boyish innocence and a tender sweetness:

洞房悄悄静幽幽,. 花烛高烧暖心头 / “In the bridal chamber we find serenity; as the nuptial candle burns, my heart melts.” (video)

The same passage ends with a dramatic interjection, 娘子呀/ “My dear wife!”, which brings pandemonium to the entire theatre. And when Liang becomes baffled by Xie’s sudden apathy, he laments:

夫妻祸福应相共,生生死死在一起 / “A couple shall share happiness and worries, together as one whole, alive or dead.” (video)

陈歆 (Chen Xin), playing Xie, sounds tired and wobbles a few notes, including in the aria after the two reconcile for the first time, when she yearns for Liang’s return from Beijing. Her makeup is thick and, in my opinion, slightly overdone – her plump red lips are way too dramatic and glamorous, thereby discounting her believability as a mourning daughter. Nevertheless, she is a revelation when she delivers a searing indictment of the corrupt Liang family.

盘妻索妻: Inside the bridal chamber.

盘妻索妻: the piece is famous for using synthesizer music.

盘妻索妻: encore by Xiao Ya (萧雅).

Footnote: The story, as it is, ends without accounting for whether or not the villainous Liang clan gets punished for their atrocities unleashed — this ending is deemed by many modern commentators to be the author’s sarcastic commentary of unchecked political power vis-a-vis a disillusioned populace. Nevertheless, the night ends on a high note when Xiao takes a solo curtain call to thank the audience for braving a relentless Beijing weather to fill the seats, and then proceed to sing three encores, including an elegant 月亮走我也走, Xiao’s signature pop number.