Chinese opera

Chrysanthemum (金葉菊)

Date: August 2, 2014
Location: Ko Shan Theatre, Hong Kong.

Troupe: Haifeng Baizi Opera Troupe of Guangdong (廣東海豐縣白字戲劇團)

Hailufeng Baizi (海陸豐白字戲) is a regional operatic art form still loved by local folks along the northeastern coast of Guangdong Province. Its origins can be traced back to late Yuan/early Ming Dynasty, when dialectic singing theatre from the neighboring Fujian Province started to make its way down the coast. Unlike other flavors of Chinese operas, where the libretto’s language often adheres to the prevailing official parlance of the time, Baizi is literalized from local speak and influenced by folk music. The regionalization of this art form makes it quite different from the body of work descending from and influenced by Beijing Opera/Kunqu. However, because of the compartmentalized nature of the region’s social culture, Baizi has never found a broad audience. In face of today’s onslaught of media and entertainment, the demand for Baizi’s artistry has waned in recent years.

Baizi proliferated at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, and its repertoire has realigned accordingly. After a brief extinction towards the end of the Cultural Revolution, it resurrected, and one of the first operas to regain prominence on stage was Chrysanthemum (金葉菊), a story about justice and revenge. The story tells of a duke named Ma Yinglong (馬應龍) who had to fight an uphill battle against the treasonous instincts of Emperor Wanli’s relatives. Lin Tianyi (林天義), a loyal servant of a good general slain by the Emperor’s treasonous relative, entered the service of the treasonous camp a la Infernal Affairs to unearth evidence of treason. The daughter of the good general, Lin Yuejiao (林月嬌), after many years of banishment, reconnected with servant Lin and, together with Ma, eventually managed to foil the treachery of the bad camp, though not without significant loss of lives. Yu Jincheng (余錦程), Director of the Troupe, impressed in the role of Ma with clean delivery of his lines and a commanding stage presence – in a role that requires plenty of both. As the servant Lin, Yu Haiping (余海平), Deputy Director of the Troupe, portrayed one of unrelenting loyalty. Ma Sixiang (馬四香) had a good evening as daughter Lin: singing with grace and performing with a glowing stage presence. The letdown came mainly from Yu Ronggui (余榮貴)’s Emperor, who could not present prestige and stature, even for a diminished and severely flawed character. The production also exposed the downside of an art form untainted with the strict regimen of Beijing Opera/Kunqu: tables and chairs were set too close together (the Emperor had to use his legs to slide the chair away from the table before he could squeeze in – a serious faux pas in Chinese operatic arts). Various character actors (including imperial guards) looked like extras who have not had enough rehearsals and seemed dazzled and confused on stage. Dialectic differences and cultural compartmentalization may have contributed to the art form’s relative obscurity, but a lax approach to staging and discipline could also be non-trivial contributors.

For all of Baizi’s long history and cultural significance, it needs and deserves preservation. It’s up to those on stage and the patronage network off it to ensure its survival. Nevertheless, Hong Kong audiences should be glad that their Government, with its generous financial support, was at least willing to take up its share of the bargain.

Chrysanthemum, by Haifeng Baizi Opera Troupe of Guangdong. Yu Ronggui (left) as Emperor, and Yu Jincheng (right) as Ma.

Chrysanthemum, by Haifeng Baizi Opera Troupe of Guangdong. Yu Ronggui (left) as Emperor, and Yu Jincheng (right) as Ma. Photo Credit: Chinese Opera Festival/LCSD.

Chrysanthemum (金葉菊).

Chrysanthemum (金葉菊).

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Chinese opera

Fairy Couple (天仙配)

Date: May 24, 2011
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

Background. The seven daughters of heaven travel to middle earth in search of lovers. The youngest daughter soon falls in love with Dong Yong (董永), a poor lad who enslaves himself to three years of servitude in order to pay for his parents’ funeral. After the daughter marries Dong, she buys Dong Yong’s freedom by weaving, with some heavenly help, 10 scrolls of silk quilts in one evening. Heavenly father soon finds out about this forbidden matrimony, and forces the two lovers to separate. At separation, the daughter laments: “来年春暖花开日, 槐荫树下把子交 / in the spring of next year, return to the tree under which we are married to find your son” – a poetic phrase that has become a symbol of Huangmei tragedy.

Performance. Playing the role of the youngest daughter is Plummie Winner Li Wen (李文). At 42, Li was not, at the surface the most ideal actress to play the role of the youngest sister – her older sisters on stage looked and were probably at least a decade younger than Li. But to declare that Li was unsuitable for the role was as ridiculous as calling Deborah Voigt too fat for Ariadne. If anything, Li inhabited the role with aplomb – her first stage entrance revealed an innocent teenager with such a natural playfulness that cloaked her real age. Her mastery of the role became obvious when she danced in a pas de sept in the first act (of six) with her six sisters: as the seven sisters moved in synchronized unison, Li’s movements were distinctly more fluid, with cleaner breaks separating one dance sequence from the other  than her counterparts. As she metamorphosed from an angel engineering her matrimony with Dong to a faux earthling serving her earthly husband, Li’s visage and body language adapted distinguishably from a prankish to a shy yet mature innocence – that shade of difference, albeit physically minute, conveyed a monumental switch in dramatic direction, and epitomized Li’s aptitude as a stage performer. In the role of Dong was top-class actor Yu Shun (余顺), who seemed to struggle at the beginning with a dry throat but recovered to deliver some juicy passages after intermission, including the famous line in which Dong lamented their inevitable separation: “从空降下无情剑 / the heartless sword befalls”.

Li Wen (李文) and Yu Shun (余顺), in the Huangmei opera classic: Fairy Couple (天仙配).

Li Wen (李文) and Yu Shun (余顺), in the Huangmei opera classic: Fairy Couple (天仙配).

Footnote: The performance is part of a series of Chinese operas staged to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party, to be commemorated on July 1, 2011.

Multimedia samples:

1. Yu Shun, as Dong and Wu Yaling (吴亚玲) as the sister. The sister tries to engineer their first rendezvous, while Dong narrates his background: 56.com video.

2. Plummie winner Han Zaifen (韩再芬) and Zhao Chun (赵纯), singing respectively the roles of the sister and Dong after they bought their freedom: Youku.com video.

3. Farewell scene, by Zhou Li (周莉): Youku.com video.

4. Tan Chunfang (檀春芳), singing “the heartless sword befalls”: 56.com video.

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Chinese opera

The Peony Pavilion (牡丹亭)

Date: May 4, 2011
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

Background. Bando Tamasaburo (坂东玉三郎) is a kabuki actor who specializes in onnagata, or women’s roles. In 2006, after watching a performance of The Peony Pavilion, Bando-san fell in love with the art and soon began taking lessons from Zhang Jiqing (张继青), an authority in kunqu performance and the inaugural winner of the Plum Blossom prize. It is not unprecedented for a guy to tackle the female role of Du Liniang (杜丽娘) – most famously, Mei Lanfang (梅兰芳) has done it, to great acclaim. But it is unprecedented that a Japanese onnagata would try a role and in an art form so deeply imbued with ancient Chinese sensibilities. Yet it would be a mistake to underestimate the onnagata – while stage execution may differ, kabuki and kunqu have their similarities – in many ways they often share a similar sentimentality towards a more idyllic past, and tend to extol the virtues of ethereal beauty and ancient customs more than many other art forms. The biggest difficulty Bando-san had to overcome remained with the libretto, which is in Chinese and to be sung in the kun vocal style. After two years of hard work (Bando-san once said that it took him a few months to learn three minutes of the libretto), Bando-san made his debut as Du in Kyoto in 2008, and soon thereafter performed the role in Beijing, Shanghai and then Hong Kong. Dubbed the “Sino-Japanese Peony Pavilion”, this production draws from a pool of top kunqu and theater talents from the two countries.

Performance. The Sino-Japanese Peony Pavilion presented seven chapters in one evening, out of the original’s 55 chapters (which could easily take a few nights to labor through, a la Wagner). Bando-san began the evening by discovering a beautiful garden for the first time and, in the process, delivered perhaps the most famous bit in all of kunqu:

原来姹紫嫣红开遍 / 似这般都付与断井颓垣 / 良辰美景奈何天 / 赏心乐事谁家院. The spring flowers bloom with abandon / next to broken wells and deserted fences / where have the pretty sight and beauty gone? / who in the past has lived in this pleasant and charming place?

As his Du made her new discovery, she started to lament a wasted past, while carrying a facial expression that effused a curious glow yet tempered with a mild air of regret. Within a short passage, Bando-san was able to showcase a complex array of emotions, yet framing all of them within the psyche of the teenage girl he was portraying. By the end, his Du has transformed from a clueless teenager wondering what love was and where to find love, to someone who had all the answers figured out. In the chapter “Union with the Ghost” (幽媾), when Du’s lover, a scholar, expressed love for a woman in the declaration: “姐姐 / my lovely sister!”, Du barely nudged as she was certain that the woman for whom the scholar declared love was no one else but her. The gesture could be read as naive, but when Bando-san portrayed such on stage, Du, neither jumping to ecstasy nor harboring any doubt, simply beamed with a matter-of-factly confidence. She moved slightly towards her lover, as if acknowledging his declaration for her. The lover, played by Yu Jiulin (俞玖林), provided an excellent counterpoint to Bando-san’s Du. Having seen him in Macao for the first time in 2005, I found his acting now more refined, emitting the innocent warmth of a young scholar with more restrained precision than in the past, when he would tend to over-act.

This performance is part of a series of performances celebrating the tenth anniversary of Kunqu’s selection by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Other performances with reviews include: A Collection of Scepters (满床笏), and The Lute Story (琵琶记).

Bando Tamasaburo (坂东玉三郎).

Bando Tamasaburo (坂东玉三郎).

Bando Tamasaburo (坂东玉三郎), in The Peony Pavilion (牡丹亭).

Bando Tamasaburo (坂东玉三郎), in The Peony Pavilion (牡丹亭).

Bando Tamasaburo (坂东玉三郎), in The Peony Pavilion (牡丹亭).

Bando Tamasaburo (坂东玉三郎), in The Peony Pavilion (牡丹亭).

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Chinese opera

The Lute Story (琵琶记)

Date: May 12, 2011
Location: Changan Theater, Beijing.

Background. The story famously elevates filial and marital duty as a prominent feature of Chinese culture. At his father’s insistence, Cai Bojie (蔡伯喈) abandoned his family and his newly wedded wife to take a national exam in the capital. After acing the exam, Cai was forced by Prime Minister Niu to not only stay in the capital but, in typical ancient Chinese fashion, marry his daughter, Niu Suyu (牛素玉). Trapped in the reality that the prime minister’s words were golden, Cai had no choice but to stay in the capital and marry the younger Niu. Zhao Wuniang (赵五娘), despite having married to Cai for only two months before he left for the capital, took up full responsibility as caretaker of Cai’s parents. Throughout a series of droughts and famine, Zhao slaved through, at times eating chaffs to stay alive. After Cai’s parents died, she began a decade-long (twelve, to be exact) odyssey to the capital in search of Cai. By various strokes of luck and determination, Zhao finally reunited with Cai. Deeply moved by Zhao’s upholding of filial duty and Cai’s unerring love for Zhao, the emperor himself blessed the reunion, while the younger Niu dutifully agreed to stay on as secondary wife. The title refers to how Zhao would play the lute as a street musician to earn her expenses during her odyssey.

Performance. This production is staged and produced by Yongjia Kunqu Opera Troupe (永嘉昆剧团), famously known for presenting kunqu with a unique and unconventional charm. The hand and body movements in Yongjia kunqu (“yongkun” in short) are slightly rougher and less elegant than the kunqu presented by Suzhou Kunqu Opera Theatre (苏州昆剧院), but move with a more humanly, realistic motion. The tempo in yongkun is also slightly faster, and therefore appears livelier and more energetic, than traditional kunqu. Liu Wenhua (刘文华), as Zhao, acted with a deep sense for the role, moving with such seasoned fluidity and singing with such vocal confidence that for the most part camouflaged her advance age of 55 years. The on-stage intensity of her Zhao was clearly the dramatic weight of the evening. Her counterpart, Ma Shili (马士利), was adequate but not particularly noteworthy as Cai. You Tengteng (由腾腾) performed the thankless role of Niu with dedicated conviction, often moving with the same grace and precision as Liu, her teacher. At barely 21 years old, she is surely a rising star in the art, and most certainly is the person to carry Liu’s mantle as the elder master retires from stage.

Liu Wenhua (刘文华), as Zhao Wuniang (赵五娘).

A poster featuring Liu Wenhua (刘文华), as Zhao Wuniang (赵五娘), in The Lute Story (琵琶记).

You Tengteng (由腾腾), as Niu.

You Tengteng (由腾腾).

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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.

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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?

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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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