Chinese opera

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.