Chinese opera

Romance of the West Chamber (西厢记)

Date: January 25, 2013
Location: Sunbeam Theatre, Hong Kong.

Towards the end of each Lunar year, when the weather gets freezing cold throughout the land, opera troupes in China perform a ceremony in which opera gods are worshipped and performers’ costumes and opera librettos are placed in a chest, which would remain locked until the new year begins and when the weather becomes more palatable for performances, which back in the old days were held on open-air stages. In rare circumstances, similar ceremonies are performed when one or more performers decide to retire a role so that their students or understudies could have their chances on stage. At Sunbeam tonight, a rare, generational passing-of-the-torch ceremony was held amid a sold-out audience.

The performers retiring their roles in Romance of the West Chamber belong to the Zhejiang Xiaobaihua Yue Opera Troupe (浙江小百花越剧团). These performers aren’t just the average run-of-the-mill performers who toil night after night in China’s opera circuit – they are the Yue opera equivalent of USA basketball’s Dream Team: Plummie winners Mao Weitao (茅威涛), Chen Huiling (陈辉玲) and Dong Kedi (董柯娣), and Yan Jia (颜恝), a celebrated huadan performer who has emigrated to Australia years ago but came out of de facto retirement so that she can properly and ceremoniously retire her role in the opera. If the constellation of Mao, Chen and Dong represents the cream of the crop in all of Yue opera, Mao would be its singly shining star. A three-time Plummie winner (including a Grand Plum), Mao is the troupe head of the Zhejiang Xiaobaihua and is considered by critics to be Yue opera’s spiritual and supreme embodiment. As a young girl, Mao failed her college matriculation exams and had to choose a fallback, then-less-lucrative career path in dramatic arts. Thirty years onwards, she has not only made a name for herself in the arts but has made modern Yue opera as much about her as she is about it. The fact that she decides to retire one of her signature roles – Zhang Sheng (张生) in Romance – also reflects the timing reality that many of today’s superstars in Chinese operas who grew up and flourished during three decades of post-Mao (Zedong) economic reform are reaching, or, for some who labor in vocally taxing roles, well past their retirement age.

To be sure, retirement ceremonies have been performed in the past year by Xiaobaihua in many cities throughout China. But the ceremony in Hong Kong this week holds special significance because Sunbeam was the location in Hong Kong where Xiaobaihua performed in their 1984 inaugural season – a significant achievement for a newly found Chinese opera troupe in an era when overseas travel by Chinese citizens would likely expense a strenuous amount of political and financial capital.

The story of Romance of the West Chamber is well known, and will not be reiterated here. That said, because Yue opera constitutes only female performers, Yue opera’s version of Romance requires a female performer who can recreate the complicated male character of Zhang, the intelligent yet occasionally clownish young scholar of proletarian origins who has to find a way to win the affection of not just Cui Yingying (崔莺莺), a beautiful and smart woman, but also Cui’s mother, who demands her daughter’s betrothal to be nothing less than aristocratic and monetarily handsomely.

Zhang is typically portrayed in Chinese opera (not just Yue style, but in Kunqu and Beijing Opera) as a clueless but fearless lover who would do anything to win the hands of Cui. Tonight, Mao assertively portrayed a Zhang who was naïve in the art of human affection but resolute in search of it. Yan retained a gorgeous voice despite her retirement, and flowed through her lyrical passages of Cui as if she never left China’s opera scene. Chen, with acute eye contact and a formidable stage presence, held the crucial role of the chamber maid Hong Niang (红娘) with the role’s signature blend of genuine naiveté and canny street smarts. Dong executed the role of Cui’s mother with a persevering gusto and an aura of stubborn authority. Her voice, flourishing with a hint of masculine steadfastness, revealed her training as a laosheng (老生).

The retirement ceremony occurred after the performance, which lasted nearly two hours without intermission. Cantopop singer Liza Wang (汪明荃), a cult figure in Hong Kong who drew loud and rabid cheers from the audience, MCed the ceremony and explained the historical significance of the retirement ceremonies. Like the metropolitan version of the Kunqu story, the courtship between Zhang and Cui left more to be desired, as it never bothered to achieve sexual consummation in totem, at least in spirit, without Zhang’s triumphant but necessary return following a painful separation scene (长亭) that marks the end of the Yue opera. Unlike Kunqu’s metropolitan version, however, Mao’s Zhang asserted more scenic control, with a more intense projection of the character’s theatrical significance than in either Kunqu or Beijing Opera.

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