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August 28, 2003

Beijing-style Chinese opera

Chinese operaColorful, action-packed art form includes dancing, mime, gymnastics

Before Jackie Chan (the clown prince of contemporary martial arts movies), there was Bruce Lee (kung fu’s Fred Astaire-equivalent).

And long before either of those stars burst out of the cheesy constellation of Hong Kong cinema into the Hollywood galaxy, there was Beijing-style Chinese opera — a colorful, action-packed art form born in its namesake city two centuries ago. Until the first kung fu films came along during the 1950s and ’60s, the only opportunity for popular audiences to see public (albeit non-contact) exhibitions of Chinese martial arts — with their hyper-acrobatic leaps, kicks, punches and tumbling — was to attend Beijing-style Chinese operas.

Originally crafted to appeal to Chinese audiences who yawned through slower, subtler and oppressively literary “classical” Chinese operas, the Beijing form also features singing, dancing, mime and instrumental music, along with costumes that would bedazzle a peacock.

Pittsburghers will get a rare chance to see local stagings of Beijing-style operas when Taipei’s Li-yuan Chinese Opera Theatre performs Sept. 9 and 10 at Carnegie Mellon University’s Philip Chosky Theatre. Pitt’s Asian Studies Center and the CMU drama school are co-sponsoring the events.

More than 30 actors and musicians will perform but the featured player will be Li Bao-chun, who is routinely called “a star among stars” in Chinese opera.

Born in 1950 into a family of celebrated Chinese opera singers, Li was admitted to the Beijing Opera School at age 10. After eight years of training there, he was assigned to China’s sole national opera troupe, located in Beijing. (All other opera companies in China are classified as provincial.)

During the Cultural Revolution, Li and his family were labeled as political dissidents and sentenced to hard labor on a farm, where Li surreptitiously continued practicing his art. Eventually, he fled to Taiwan, where he became that island’s pre-eminent operatic performer.

Li specializes in the “lao-sheng” (bearded man) and “wu-sheng” (warrior hero) roles. While all Chinese opera performers train rigorously, men and women who specialize in warrior roles “must spend countless hours of punishing exercises that would make gymnasts’ routines look like child’s play,” says Bell Yung, director of Pitt’s Asian Studies Center and professor of music. “The years of sweat, pain and bruises pay off on stage when leaps and tumbles appear effortless and graceful,” Yung says. “The popular martial arts films from Hong Kong owe their debt to Chinese opera.” Jackie Chan himself began his martial arts training as a child studying in Chinese opera schools, Yung notes.

On Sept. 9, Li will play the title role in “The Monkey King,” whose mischievous disregard for social norms and defiance of the Jade Emperor of Heaven’s authority made him a popular hero among generations of Chinese who felt suffocated by Confucian (and, later, Communist) mores.

On Sept. 10, Li will perform the principle male roles in two operas: “Farewell My Concubine,” a tragic love story that dates back to the 3rd century B.C.E. and was retold in the award-winning film of the same name, and “Golden Falcon,” a fairy tale of celestial gods and animals.

“All three roles provide perfect vehicles for Mr. Li’s tremendous power and artistry,” says Yung.
The Li-yuan Chinese Opera Theatre performers’ costumes and makeup will be fantastic, according to Yung: embroidered satin gowns with flowing sleeves, glittering emerald and ruby pendants, elaborate head-gear, high-piled jet-black hair. But the company’s sets and props will be starkly minimal.

“In the kind of traditional Beijing-style opera that has been preserved in Taiwan, you see maybe a table and two chairs on stage,” Yung explains. “Through gestures and miming, the actors use these props to imply everything from a town square to a mountain slope. A really skilled actor will practically convince an audience that he’s climbing a mountain, just by the way that he appears to struggle to climb first onto a chair, and from there up onto a table.”

This is in contrast to current opera productions in mainland China, Yung points out. “In Beijing, the trend today is to have realistic scenery, so the acting is no longer as significant,” he says. “They’re also experimenting with larger orchestras and modern costumes and stories.

“Mainly, these changes are being made because [Chinese opera companies] are losing their audiences. For Chinese people who grew up watching TV and going to the movies, even the Beijing-style operas are too long and slow and archaic.”

In deference to Western audiences, each of the Li-yuan company’s performances will last only about two hours (down from the traditional three-to-four hours) and singing will be downplayed.

“When Chinese opera companies visit Western countries,” Yung says, “they cut down on singing in favor of dance and martial arts because they realize that the most difficult part of the performance for Westerners to take, really the only difficult part for Westerners to take, is the singing” — which, to non-Asians, often sounds like screeching, he acknowledges.

“It’s the voice timbre that’s so different. Western opera singers tend to use a chest voice, so it’s a broader and deeper sound. Chinese opera singers focus their voices in their heads, so it’s shriller and more piercing. Both types of singing carry equally well throughout a theatre, but it’s a very different voice production technique. Western ears are just not used to it.” But if Yung has his way, more Pittsburghers will cultivate eyes and ears for non-Western art forms. During the last year, Asian Studies has sponsored and organized, alone or in collaboration with other institutions, artistic presentations with origins in China, Japan, Korea, Indonesia, India and Mongolia. Besides helping to internationalize the city, such presentations contribute to world peace, Yung believes.

“After you have attended a performance by a cultural group from China or the Middle East or some other foreign place,” he says, “it is a lot harder to view people from those places as enemies.”

—Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 36 Issue 1

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