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.

Chinese opera

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.