Chinese opera

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?

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.