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.

Youku: link.

Chinese opera

Adding Eyes to a Dragon (畫龍點睛)

Date: January 20, 2013
Location: Sunbeam Theatre, Hong Kong.

Near the end of the Beijing opera, “Adding Eyes to a Dragon”, there appears a moment when Emperor Li concludes that governance failures abound in his sprawling empire, and that much remains to be done: “吏治不清大唐江山難久長…閉目塞聽官風民情難執掌…任賢才共大計重振朝綱 / The empire shall not last if not administered well…blindly listening to field reports is hardly good governance…strong talent must be recruited to reform the government” (Youtube). That moment is celebrated in any anthology of Beijing opera, not only for its robust yet exquisite Ma-clan (馬派) artistry, but also for its naked exposition of the piece’s raison d’etre – a Beijing opera vehicle for making a political point.

That point was first made in 1990, not long after corruption and increased inflation pressures disgruntled a nation and led to the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident. The political elite, seeing a real threat to their power, set in motion a series of reforms in the 90s that formed the basis of today’s modern China. “Adding Eyes to a Dragon” is a product of that period, not unlike how model operas were ideological vehicles during the heyday of the Cultural Revolution, in which ideology and the promise of change were just as important as change itself.

The story, originated from The Book of Tang Dynasty “新唐書”, focuses on Ma Zhou (馬周), a policy whiz who dares to criticize the Emperor and would rather labor in anonymity than be the political machine’s yes man: “不逐蝇利不担心…不伺候昏君 / I won’t play their game of corruption…I won’t work for an idiotic leader”. Emperor Li, impressed by Ma’s straight-shooting frankness and hoping to include the reform-minded Ma in his government, begins an adventurous trip to personally recruit Ma. It is during this trip that the emperor discovers all the societal ills and corruption embroiling his nation, culminating in that famous moment when his determination to reform becomes iron-clad.

The relationship between Ma and the emperor gains prominence not merely because Chairman Mao famously remarked, in his Notes to Chinese History, that the incorruptible Ma was one of Chinese history’s finest political operators, but also because Mao’s successors amidst the ruins of the Tiananmen Square incident urgently needed something to rally a nation. Interestingly, the opera includes a feminine figure and a metaphor for the common folk, Zhang Siniang (張四娘), who despite her dubious past and her gender was resolute not only in forging her own path in love but in standing up against evil power. Her eventual sacrifice emboldens Ma and the emperor to do good.

The current production, a 2011 revival of the one done in the early 90s, aims to ensure that the opera’s artistry gets a generational make-over, now that the previous performers are way into their retirements. The stellar cast of Zhang Xinyue (張馨月) as Zhang, Chen Junjie (陈俊杰) as Ma, Huang Baixue (黄柏雪) as the evil politician and Zhu Qiang (朱强) as the emperor, is young, energetic, and all flag-bearers of their respective performing clans. Zhang’s fluid stage movements and tender vocals reveal her Mei-clan lineage. Chen’s portrayal of Ma is a fiery showcase of Qiu-clan flamboyance, while Huang’s characterization of a scheming, devilish, win-at-all-cost politician has hallmarks of the quintessential Beijing opera clown. Zhu, presently the superstar flag-bearer of Ma-clan artistry, embodies both the sophistication of an empire leader and the everyday sense of the common man. “Adding Eyes to a Dragon”, though not strictly speaking a model opera (which by definition must be conceived during the Cultural Revolution), has all the elements to be a most fine one. The timing of this revival also conveniently matches the generational leadership change in Chinese politics: political pundits should take note.

Youtube: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.