Chinese opera

The Artistry of Lao Dan

Date: March 8 and 9, 2013
Location: City Hall Concert Hall, Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong Arts Festival has been running a multi-year series on different role types in Beijing opera. This year, they focus on lao dan (老旦), or the old lady.

Lao dan specializes in the portrayal of middle- to old-aged women, most often facing calamity, injustice, or often both. Lao dans differ from other dan (female) roles in Beijing opera because they typically do not wear elaborate costumes or heavy makeup (except those younger performers who need to look older onstage than they really are). Hand gestures and finger placements, academically crucial in most other dan roles, do not feature prominently here. Lao dans’ dramatic arsenal thus rests primarily with the voice (a full one, as opposed to falsetto in most other dan roles). The appropriation of a full-powered, well-controlled chest voice enables a more layered, nuanced timbre, thereby empowering the performer to emote more profoundly through singing. Whether playing an authoritative empress amid political turmoil or an ageing grandmother wailing for her lost son, the fully glory of lao dan’s artistry cannot simply be registered through visual dramatics and wearable embellishments; it must be done vocally.

This provides a challenge, however, as lao dans have, until recently, been sung by males, whose naturally different timbre requires a slightly different mix of air flow and posture. The dearth of female lao dans to pass on their trade (now most commonly sung by females), and a relatively few plush roles for them, means that the role of lao dan is rarely taken up by volunteering newcomers in the trade. Yet, a Beijing opera without a reliable lao dan is like staging Verdi without a dependable baritone. This year’s Festival is special because it introduces to the Hong Kong audience four of the most talented lao dans in the business today to work on a variety of pieces, from old classics like The Story of a Golden Turtle (金龟记) to rarities like Duel with Spears (对花枪), which features acrobatic display rarely found in the lao dan repertoire. The pieces were performed over two evenings.

The first evening featured a quad-bill of Stabbing Bajie (刺巴杰), Mother Longing for Her Missing Son (望儿楼), excerpts from model opera The Red Lantern (红灯记), and Duel. Stabbing focuses on mother Ma avenging her prodigal son’s death, only to find ample resistance along the way. Ma was portrayed by Bai Weichen (白玮琛), whose training as a fighting dan (刀马旦) was deliciously evident as she handled her weaponry with an unfazed briskness and clarity. Her sword movements, weaving through a myriad of attackers, were swift but relentless. The precision of her sword trajectories would make the choreographers in last week’s Romeo and Juliet drool with jealousy. Although her character is that of a passionately angry mother, its inclusion in the lao dan series is interesting, as the role dresses and vocalizes more like a regular dan than that of a lao dan. In Mother, Zhang Lan (张兰) portrayed a mother who, overlooking from a tower, longs for the return of her son, who has been leading troops in far-away lands. Zhang moved about onstage with gravitas, and as she moved from a downstage center position to the tower upstage, she hauled her body with the sort of stagnating viscosity that plainly revealed the heaviness of her maternal worries. One could feel her pain merely by watching her tense body movements and forlorn facial expressions. Her voice, however, could not match her acting, and she tended to draw out her phrases so much that she lost synchronization with the music in a bothersome manner — something that is usually dreaded in lao dan artistry.

In Red Lantern, the part of Grandma Li — a symbolic guardian of the nascent Communist Party’s future — that Tan Xiaoling (谭晓令) had to play would baffle even the top Hollywood actors. In the span of less than twenty minutes, the part has to dramatize fury, melancholy and distress, all the while singing some of the most difficult passages in all of Chinese opera. Tan’s vocals displayed a wide range of  emotions as she deftly moved between top and lower registers and along the entire dynamic range. She was also careful with her phrasing and diction (all-important in model opera, as its primary intention is to propagandize through sung prose). However, she was comparatively weak dramatically, and the makeup department did her no favors by not covering up her porcelain baby face, which was not exactly the proper yardstick for a serious guardian of the Party. In Duel, Yuan Huiqin (袁慧琴) played Jiang Guizhi (姜桂芝), a wife disowned by her husband. A Plummie Winner, Yuan is well-known across the land due to her frequent appearances on CCTV’s music and Chinese opera channels. Her legendary portrayal of the matriarch in Female Warriors of the Yangs was so fiery that the last time I saw it I thought she was going to fly across the audience to give me a good smackin’. In Duel, she practically carried the entire cast with her fearless portrayal of the disowned wife and her determination to clear her name. Her voice was measured and her phrasal placing deliberate. Her timbre carried the kind of regal weight and certainty that instantly settled the question of who was ultimately in charge.


Yuan Huiqin (袁慧琴), as Jiang Guizhi.

The second evening began with Fighting at the Four Guard Gates (杀四门) and ending with Turtle. Fighting, like Stabbing, was not a showcase of lao dan but by no means a cursory time-filler. In Fighting, Wang Lu (王璐) had to fend off multiple groups of bad guys through a series of martial arts. Wang’s movements were clean and precise, and after each whirling routine he would stop into a standstill, with nary a sign of breathlessness or spasm. After he dropped a spear in one extremely difficult routine, he implored his colleagues to let him redo it and then went on to complete the routine perfectly — a gesture that amplified his unfettered professionalism. The Hong Kong audience responded, and recognized Wang with two curtain calls, including a solo one that, while uncharacteristic of Beijing opera’s collaborative psyche, simply showed the depth of Wang’s triumph. The lao dan role of Kang Shi (康氏, or miss Kang) in Turtle was split by Zhang, from the evening before, and Kang Jing (康静), a superstar in the mold of Yuan. The story of Turtle centers around a mother lamenting the mysterious death of one of his sons and her quest to seek justice. The role of Kang Shi is demanding to sing, and the singer must have staying power as she has long-winding passages throughout the piece’s two-hour length. Zhang completed the first chapter in dutiful but unmemorable fashion, while Kang labored through the last three. Towards the end of the last chapter, Kang’ voice sounded slightly flayed and tired. At the curtain call, she looked visibly drained, but should be content that she performed amicably and carried the role with an unimpeachable dignity. Kang Shi is the kind of role that is difficult to please, but extremely satisfying when sung well. In that respect, Kang did just fine.


Yuan Huiqin (袁慧琴), as Kang Shi.

The Arts Festival really should congratulate themselves for programming this series. I’m afraid that in the years that I have been living in Beijing, the honchos at Beijing Opera Troupe have never been able to elevate lao dan as a matter worth exclusively programming for, instead sticking often with tried-and-true commercial workhorses featuring famous regular dans. That said, even with the full backing of the Arts Festival publicity machine, the halls in Hong Kong were barely half full, with plenty of empty seats awaiting audiences in both evenings. For all its artistry and crucial dramatic heft in Beijing opera, lao dans deserve more love.

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Chinese opera

Unicorn Purse (锁麟囊)

Date: January 3, 2010
Location: Changan Theater, Beijing.

Background. A unicorn purse is a bag of matrimonial jewelry gifted to the bride by the mother of the bride in ancient China to bring her fertility. Unicorn Purse, the Beijing opera, refers to a dramatic comedy about Xue Xiangling (薛湘灵), a well-to-do bride whose fate takes a wrong turn when a flood wipes out her wealth and possessions. Worse, she becomes separated from her family and, facing homelessness she resorts to seeking refuge at a rich family in a town nearby. In a comedic turnabout, the matriarch of the rich family is Zhao Shoujing (赵守贞), whose fortune has been built on top of the treasures in a unicorn purse, which was given to her, in her most impoverish days, by an anonymous donor. That anonymous donor, of course, is Xue. Zhao would eventually restore Xue’s good fortunes in a happy ending. In short, the story extols the virtues of doing good.

Performance. Zhao is portrayed adequately by Lu Tong (鲁彤), who delivers a splendid top vocal range but lacks dramatic weight relative to her peers. Huang Baixue (黄柏雪) brings plenty of comedy as he plays Mei Xiang (梅香), a female chou character who brings down the house with plenty of modern-day references, including “I’ll go online now” after she is dismissed by her master, and a reference to “January 3, 2010” as she marks the date when Xue and Zhao reconcile.

But the night belongs to Guo Wei (郭伟). She plays Xue Xiangling, a character most definitively portrayed by Cheng Yanqiu (程砚秋) and his students. Guo, following Cheng’s traditions, renders a somber, pensive figure whose heart-warming magnanimity is well veiled behind a languishing melancholy. Her starkly-drawn eye brows and pin-pointedly attentive eyes lend dramatic credence to her naive, porcelain face. My heart aches just to see her Xue overwhelmed by, even if merely for a small section of 2.5-hour drama, an unrelenting force of misfortune. Her interjection:

苦哇——- / “What tormenting life….”

is vocally dramatic and sensually mesmerizing. Given that Changan’s audience is quite possibly the stingiest in Chinese opera, the intervening round of thunderous applause is a testament to Guo’s stature as a flag-bearing authority of Cheng’s artistry. Granted, when she navigates her carriage through the storm (in which she would meander across the stage with two poles, one on each side of her body to signify a wheeled carriage), she reminds me of a kindergartener encircling the play room in a toy Buick – a far cry from Zhang Huoding (张火丁)’s fluidic motions of aerodynamic clarity and expansive elliptical beauty. Zhang, a few years Guo’s senior, is considered to be a leading performer in the Cheng mold. But with Zhang and many others in the Cheng clan now retired or soon retiring from performing, and with Guo getting more commercial bookings, I won’t be too surprised if Guo (33 years old this year) will soon be recognized as a leading source of Cheng’s artistry.

Unicorn Purse: curtain call.

Guo Wei (郭伟).

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Chinese opera

River Lookout (望江亭)

Date: January 2, 2010
Location: Changan Theater, Beijing.

Background. River Lookout, written by playwright Guan Hanqing (关汉卿), is basically a comedy drama featuring plenty of witty and verbal interlocutions. It details the story of Tan Jier (谭记儿), who has been hiding inside a Taoist Abbey to avoid an unsolicited paramour. One day she meets Bai Shizhong (白士中), the nephew of the abbey’s leader. They instantly fall in love, elope but run into the fury of the paramour, the aristocrat Yang Yanei (杨衙内), who obtains forged imperial documents seeking his competition’s — i.e. Bai’s — head. Furthermore, he manages to smuggle from the Imperial Palace a gold medallion which allows him to take anybody’s head — in this case, Bai’s. Upon learning of Yang’s murderous plans, Tan dresses as a fisherman at the River Lookout, gets Yang drunk, and steals from Yang the forged documents and the golden medallion. When Yang’s atrocious plan is finally unveiled, Yang is thoroughly embarrassed and disgraced, while Bai and Tan live happily ever after.

Performance. Tan Jier is a character full of vivacity and wit, and is most famously portrayed by the Zhang-clan (张派), which combines the velvet luxury of Mei (梅) and the fluidity of Cheng (程), and favors an agile coloratura delivery. The artistry of the Zhang-clan is best represented by none other than Wang Rongrong (王蓉蓉), an exhilarating performer whom I’ve seen a few times last year: as 武则天, as 吕雉 in 《下鲁城》 and as 阿庆嫂 in 《沙家浜》. The evening hits a number of euphoric highs, including a spectacular series of top notes in “见狂徒不由我怒满胸怀” / “Ablazed with anger when I the maniac encounter” and “妾身自有锦囊计,管叫他海底捞月空自欺” / “your wife has the perfect plan, to foil his and his self-serving delusions” (my translations). When Bai first runs into Tan at the abbey, Tan expresses her affection for Bai with a subtle poem:

愿把春情寄落花,随风冉冉到天涯。君能识破凤兮句,去妇当归卖酒家。/ “My love shall etch with falling flowers, which shall flutter to the end of the world. If sire can decipher this poem, yours truly shall follow.”

When the first word of each verse is put together, a phrase reads: 愿随君去 / “I shall follow you, sire.” Ecstatic over Tan’s response, Bai reverberates with an equally crafty missive:

当垆卓女艳如花,不负琴心走天涯。负却今朝花底约,卿须怜我尚无家。/ “She is gifted as she is ethereally beautiful, but does not mind traveling with the poor scholar. The lady shall have pity on this sire.”

Without delving too deeply into the historical context, the response smartly echoes the historical context brought forth by Tan’s. More significantly, the first words of the verses read: 当不负卿 / “I shall never let you down”. This poetic interchange basically sums up to an ancient analogy of a girl’s “Yes I do” after a guy’s proposal, followed by the guy’s promise of “I won’t let you down”.

Wang’s performance lights up the house, which evidently includes a lot of her rabid fans. Time and again the whole crowd stands on its feet, roaring with approval and completely awed by Wang’s vocal agility and dramatic acuity. Bao Fei (包飞) delivers a strong performance as Bai, although he sounds overwhelmed especially when juxtaposed against Wang’s much more powerful, confident voice. Yang is played by Sun Zhen (孙震), a fine, young actor with plenty of comedic genes who brings down the house with his recitative in the penultimate scene. The imperial symbol is signified in this production by a sword instead of a gold medallion. Depending on the troupe or the literature source, one may find different objects used as this imperial symbol, but that’s a minor detail that hardly gets in the way of the story flow.

The only letdown of the evening is perhaps the lack of a second – and, in my opinion, very much deserved – curtain call. This oversight is partially due to the end time (just after 10pm) and much of the crowd shooting for the nearest exit in a snowing evening in Beijing. Regardless, this wonderful performance marks a great start to my 2010 season, which hopefully will be just as good as, if not better than, 2009’s. Happy new year to all!!!

River Lookout: lookout scene, with Yang piss drunk on the floor and Tan readying her get-away.

River Lookout: curtain call, with Yang (played by Sun), Tan (Wang), and Bai (Bao).

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Chinese opera

Stop the Horse (挡马)

Date: January 2, 2010
Location: Changan Theater, Beijing.

Background. Set in the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127 AD), “Stop the Horse” retells the story of Yang (杨八姐), who disguises herself as a young man and penetrates into enemy territory (Liao Empire) to gather military intelligence. On her return, she chances upon Jiao Guangpu (焦光普), a seemingly shoddy hotel owner who salivates over one of Yang’s possessions — an entry permit to the Song Empire. The two would then fight for it before the two reconcile through verbal probing: Jiao realizes that Yang, the spy, is more than just a cross-border merchant, while Yang realizes that Jiao is actually a former general of the Song Empire who was once captured by the Liaos, has since managed to escape, but had difficulty returning to Song because he changed his name (while on the run) and lost all his entry papers. After the reconciliation, the two make their way back to the Song Empire. “Stopping the Horse” refers to the initial chance encounter between Yang and Jiao.

Performance. “Stop the Horse” is a martial arts-heavy “operetta” between Yang and Jiao, played respectively by two veteran performers from the Beijing Opera Troupe: Wang Xiaoli (王晓丽) and Ye Jiangxiang (叶江翔), with Wang being a student of a prim lineage of Beijing opera masters: Xie Ruiqing (谢锐青), and Wang Yaoqing (王瑶卿). Using an open stage, the two engage in nearly fifteen minutes of non-stop, jaw-dropping martial arts combat. Two stage props, a table and a chair, are used not only to depict Jiang’s hotel but as, before the two characters finally reconcile, improvised shields for Jiao while Yang’s sword aggressively pursues. To be sure, this “operetta”, being less than half an hour long, is scheduled as a filler to open the evening’s main performance: River Lookout. Nevertheless, the martial arts are impressive, bringing much-needed energy to an audience that seems still recovering from the party on New Year’s Eve.

Stop the Horse.

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