Chinese opera is an all-round type of entertainment, combining music, dancing, acrobatics and fake combat into a show. Formerly very popular, it has since been replaced by sub-par imports such as Cantopop. Chinese opera is now in serious decline, only of interest to die-hard retiree fans and young people who have an appreciation for their native culture.

The opera does not focus only on musical aspects, it has heavy doses of martial arts as well. The plots are usually old epics, performed by highly customed performers, all male (for some odd reason, women were not allowed to perform). It is kind of like West Side Story in some ways, the chereographed fights are all done in a dancing manner, held to a strict beat provided by classic Chinese musical instruments.

Words are spoken in a sing-song tone. The best parts of a Chinese opera are the acrobatics, which are usually complicated. The Chinese drums pick up in tempo, the actors twist and leap higher, until it all culminates in a final epic battle between good and evil. Usual drill, but it is definitely better entertainment than say, pseudo-music peformed by some Korean pop kiddies.

Chinese opera is all but dead, but several famous Asian actors were trained in their style, including Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Sammo Hung. That explains why Jackie Chan is also a famous singer with several successful records in this part of the world. Now, he doesn't have to wear that weird makeup that is needed in Chinese opera, but he still supports the industry, despite the fact that he is participating in the dismantling of it. Western entertainment is a dominating factor in the downfall of Chinese opera. Oh well, c'est la vie.

There are four main types of Chinese Opera, Pihuang, or Beijing Opera, Hebei opera, Kunqu, and Gaochang. In total however, there are more than 300 forms of opera coming from different regions. Mainly used as a form of storytelling, many Chinese operas have no recorded author. Since the retelling can be in many different styles, stories are usually classified by subject matter, falling in the the basic categories Wu, and Wen, meaning Martial/Military and Civil, respectively. Operas may have elements of both.

Specific regional customs also have colourful variations on style, like the Szechuan opera's famous face-changers, (Bianlian), where actors can change silk face masks extremely rapidly, and transparently with sleight of hand.

The history

Chinese opera in the form we see today is recent, in that it was in this form around 200 years ago, a blink in the eye of Chinese history. The stories and dramas from which they originate usually have much more of a lineage, with the earliest kown ones being written in the 12th centure CE.

A large number of dramas originate from the period of fragmentation in China during the Southern Sung and Yuan dynasties. The Mongol court (Yuan was a Mongol dynasty) was a great patron of theatrical arts, and the kunqu style of opera gradually became popular. The Sung dynasty also produced many of the stories popular today.

Many famous operas also originate later, during the Ming dynasty, the last great Han dynasty in Imperial Chinese history.

The Peony Pavilion, which had its recent successful debut in New York, and at the Autumn Festival in Paris, is a Kunqu opera.

Hebei opera is the only type of opera that originated entirely from Northern China.

The actors

In the ancient past it seems that opera troupes were mixed, then become exclusively male, and then mixed again in recent times. Members of opera troupes were often bought or indentured as small children, and given extensive training in the arts of the opera: singing, dramas, acrobatics, etc. This system has largely collapsed in the modern world.

In all the history of opera, actors had an extremely low social status, and most were prostitutes as well.

The music

The opera is usually accompanied by a small orchestra; the instruments used are usually dictated by the tradition of specific types of opera. Wu and wen opera usually had different instruments.

Wen

  1. Yueqin, Moon guitar
  2. Pipa, Guitar that sits upright
  3. erhu, banhu, dahu, stringed instruments
  4. Other dulcimer instruments
  5. Dizi, flute
  6. Suo-na, chinese oboe
  7. Sheng, mouth organ

Wu

  1. Ban, clappers
  2. Dagu, great drums
  3. Danpigu, small single drums
  4. Dalo, great gong
  5. Xialo, small gong
  6. Yunlo, cloud gong
  7. Bo, cymbals

Its interesting to note that in the performance of the Peony Pavilion in New York, several stylistic conventions were not observed, e.g., exit stage left, enter stage right.

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