Reconciliation (解怨记)

Date: November 9, 2013
Location: Chi Lin Hall at Chi Lin Nunnery, Hong Kong.

Reconciliation, a new Kunqu opera adapted from a Buddhist sutra, tells the ancient Indian story of King Dighiti. King Brahmadatta, a neighbor, frequently waged wars with King Dighiti because his land lacked the kind of fertile resources that King Dighiti’s kingdom enjoyed. Despite always coming out victorious, the kind-hearted King Dighiti surrendered his throne to his neighbor lest he be further witness to war-related bloodshed and suffering. King Brahmadatta repaid the goodwill by capturing and then killing the good king. Before the good king’s death, he advised his son, Dighavu, to lead his life with tolerance and forgiveness. As time went by, Dighavu found himself with opportunities to avenge his father’s death, but stopped short each time because the spirit of his father would appear to reiterate his advice. When King Brahmadatta finally realized the grace of the father and son, he repented and gave his daughter’s hand to Dighavu. With the marriage came peace and prosperity between the two formerly warring states.

The premise of the sutra is simple enough: to resolve grievance and injustice through tolerance and forgiveness. When two-time Plummie winner Lin Weilin (林为林) put his hands on the story, he attempted to make it as accessible as possible but left very little room for imagination and character development. The sutra places very little emphasis on the wars, yet Lin directed a long series of acrobatics aimed at depicting the warring states. While the athletic spectacle was visually stunning, it was long and often redundant, especially the multiple flips (翻跌) and endless spear fights (对枪). The sutra only gives passing mention to King Dighiti’s queen, but in Lin’s version, the queen, played here by the beautiful Xu Yanfen (徐延芬), had enough set pieces to introduce a character, but not nearly enough to develop the character or the story. Tragically, as good as Xu the dramatist could be (see here), her best dramatic moment was neither sung nor acted: instead, as she was about to give up her throne, she stood silently with her husband downstage while a recorded voice-over sang the couple’s fate. Xu should have been given a chance to shine at that moment. Cheng Weibing (程伟兵)’s King Dighiti was often found speaking with a sermonic, almost god-like attitude, and did not seem to project a kind of earthly sensibilities that one would expect from a human. The fact that King Dighiti was being sanctified here only diminished his potential as a humanized voice of compassion. Only King Brahmadatta, played by Hu Linan (胡立楠), seemed to carry his evil all the way to the end. Xiang Weidong (项卫东), as Dighavu, found maturity at the end but did not seem to develop it leading to that point.

The best moment all evening happened at the very beginning, when a guqin player and a Chinese flutist rendered a lyrical, almost celestial Brahmic chant, written by Yao Gongbai (姚公白), Chi Lin’s resident composer. The Brahmic chant was an appropriate prelude vehicle because its cleansing effect resonated with the reconciliation theme.

Cheng Weibing (程伟兵), as King Dighiti.

Cheng Weibing (程伟兵), as King Dighiti.

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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.

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.

Youku: link.

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.

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).

A Collection of Scepters (满床笏)

Date: May 10, 2011
Location: Beijing University Hall, Beijing.

Background. The comedic story tells the lives of Gong Jing (龚敬) and his wife. He was a high government official who often sought help from her when he faced issues at work. Well educated and highly intelligent, his wife obliged and effectively became the mastermind behind Gong. Without an heir, Gong was cajoled by his deputies into a farcical plan whereby he would secretly harbor a concubine Xiao (肖氏) behind his wife. His wife found out about his devilish little plan, and briskly sent the concubine away. When the husband learned that his plan was foiled, he begged for forgiveness. After considering their marriage and, more importantly, Gong’s political career in relation to the country, she relented and brought Xiao back in a dramatic turnabout.

The entire story has 36 chapters, of which only five were presented in this kunqu production. As far as I understand, a complete staging of all 36 chapters has not been attempted by any opera troupe in modern Chinese history. The story presented in this kunqu production is actually a small episode of the entire story, which tells the life story of Guo Ziyi (郭子仪), whose life is significantly influenced by Gong and his wife. Guo’s success extended to his children, who at his 60th birthday gathered around him and placed their scepters — a symbol of authority in ancient China — at Guo’s bedside.

Performance. Playing the role of the wife was Wang Fang (王芳), a two-time Plum Blossom prize winner. Her portrayal controlled the tempo and the dramatic arc of the evening. Twice in the evening, she uttered the phrase “please follow me to my chambers / 随我进来” to seduce her husband. She said it in a most sultry voice in a most titillating posture without bordering pornographic or slovenly: this represents seduction at its best. In the final scene, after she sent her husband to the concubine’s chamber, she looked simultaneously satisfied and consumed, knowing that while her plan to save her marriage and perhaps the larger context of her husband’s political career succeeded, she had to face the reality that her husband would be sleeping with another woman. As she retired to her chamber, her body shivered uncontrollably, as if finally feeling the pain of her decision. Zhao Wenlin (赵文林) portrayed an innocent but remorseful Gong, as if begging for the audience’s forgiveness, while Weng Yuxian (翁育贤) played an angelic Xiao with an irreproachable demeanor and a cloudless understanding of the situation. As one of Gong’s deputies, Tang Rong (唐荣) labored as a workable muse but lacked a definitive inhabitation of the role. Fatally, Tang’s vocalism carried too strong a Beijing Opera flavor to be considered a serious kunqu performer.

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. The series includes plenty of delicious goodies, some of which will be reviewed later here at TFS.

Wang Fang (王芳) and Zhao Wenlin (赵文林), in A Collection of Scepters.

Wang Fang (王芳) and Zhao Wenlin (赵文林), in A Collection of Scepters.