Peking Opera through a Westerner's Eyes
"Music is made out of every sound and dancing made out of every movement" This is the whole idea behind Peking opera. When I learned that I would be traveling to China to study, I immediately seized upon the idea of study a Chinese art form with parallels the arts here in the west. I chose Peking Opera because, as an opera student, I was interested in other forms of "opera". I fell into the connotations that opera carries here in the west: Singing, music and drama. While those elements are very present in Chinese opera, they are not the most important, indeed much of the music in many Chinese opera styles is improvised. The phrase "Peking Opera" is in itself completely misleading. Peking (another word for the capital city of Beijing) is not the only city where this opera is peformed, nor is it the city of it's origin. Peking has been China's capitol more than once in it's history, and many things "Chinese" are named after it, Peking Opera and Peking Duck to name but a few. To call this art form "Opera" is also a disservice. This art form encompasses a fully comprehensive aesthetic that includes incredibly precise movements, gesticulation, makeup, acrobatics, swordplay and mime as well as the incredible demands that it places on the human voice.
Until recently, men regularly played women's roles and had to imitate them perfectly, albeit in a highly stylized way. This kind of all-encompassing art reminds me of Wagner's ideas on theater and how the whole experience should be prescribed in extremely minute detail. This is part of the philosophy behind Peking Opera. Performers begin studying at the age of 10 and usually begin performing at the age of 14 or 15. Each student specializes in a very specific type of character, such as the sheng (the male leading character), the dan (leading female character, until recently, only performed by men), the jing (painted face role), and the chou (clown). Within each types are further subdivisions of character types such as sheng who specialize in singing, dancing, acrobatics or martial arts.
Peking Opera has its origins in forms of Chinese music-drama called Anhui and Hubei opera. In 1790, troupes performing these styles of opera performed for the Royal Family for the 80th birthday of Emperor Qianlong. It was so popular with the Royals that the troupes were kept in Beijing and the styles were refined, but never performed for the public. It wasn't until almost 35 years later that Hubei and Anhui troupes performed together in public in Beijing. It was an immediate success. It was quickly adopted by royalty and peasant alike. Peking opera became the basis for an entire industry, from makeup and costumes to theaters and scenery, Peking opera gave rise to over 350 guild houses. Because of it's portability as an art form, it was performed in the streets and the tea-houses as well as in the palaces of the Emperor. By 1860, Peking opera spread quickly across the nation. From Beijing, through northeast China, the art form spread south to Shanghai by 1867, making Shanghai and Beijing competing cities in the struggle to be the center of Peking opera. This competition led to a schism, creating the "Beijing" and "Shanghai" schools of Peking opera. By 1925, Peking Opera was at the height of it's popularity and an incredibly important part of Chinese culture.
There are literally thousands of operas that relate fictional and non-fictional events in Chinese history, as well as some that depict stories from Western culture. However, Beginning in the late 1950's Peking Opera began to face the challenges of a changing world view. Most of the popular traditional operas dealt with royalty and mythic figures, and by the 1960's China was well embroiled in what would become the Cultural Revolution, part of which dealt with the rejection of old ideas about character portrayals in art. Everything in the country was pushed to further political aims; to that end art began to portray the common man, and in 1963 the Chinese ministry of culture demanded that opera companies write and perform new works that portray the political aims of the nation. Many operas were written with modern themes; in addition, many traditional operas were reworked to include portrayals of the common man. In 1966, Mao Zedong's wife, the driving force behind the notorious "Gang of Four" helped create and produce what would become known as the "Model Plays". There were eight model plays in total, although not all of them were operas, there were five operas with a revolutionary theme, two ballets and one symphony. From 1966-1976, these were the only performances allowed to be performed. These operas often had military themes, like Raid on the White Tiger Regiment, and incorporated many western musical components. The orchestra was expanded and some even contained a chorus, something unheard of at the time. Today, the "Model Plays" are rarely performed but many people who grew up during the Cultural Revolution still hold them dear to their heart. The traditional operas are popular again but the art form is not as popular as it once. For many reasons, one of the biggest being the strong influence the West is having over Eastern culture, the younger generation of Chinese feel the same way about Peking opera that many foreigners do: "it's noisey and difficult to understand" and while many of the traditional Peking operas are sung in a specific dialect unknown by many Chinese, the art form still thrives.
The music of traditional Peking opera is difficult to explain. Unlike most of western opera music, Peking opera music is not composed as much as it is evolved. Most of the music is a variation on two main themes, the xi pi and the er huang. Xi pi is an energetic, lively tune, and the er huang is a steady, gentle tune. Each of these has a number of set variations for different moods and dramatic appropriateness. Text is set to the music in short five or seven word sentences. Over time, Peking Opera has borrowed music from other regional opera styles, much like the development of Western opera in the 20th century.
The traditional Peking Opera orchestra is divided into two sections. The wen chang is composed of a jinghu player (an instrument not unlike the western violin) which leads the section, and is supported by the yueqin (closely related to the mandolin), and the Pipa (a relative of the lute). This section accompanies the singer, who usually has his or her own personal jinghu player. The second part of the orchestra, the wu chang, is analagous to the modern film score. It accompanies action that usually has no singing. It provides cues for the actors as well as accompanying dialogue, acrobatics, dancing and stylized fight scenes, it also provides atmospheric music and scene change music. The drummer in this section is also the conductor for the entire orchestra, but like western orchestras, is usually not as famous as the jinghu player.
In 1919, an extremely famous Peking opera Master named Mei Lanfang took his troupe to Japan, thus being the first group to present Chinese opera in a foreign country. Since then, Peking opera has been performed all over the world. In fact, in 1994 the UK Peking opera society was formed for the advancement of Peking opera to the West. However, not unlike the feeling that European opera afficionados have about American opera singers, there is a strong sentiment that Chinese opera cannot be performed adequately by foreigners. Ione Meyer, the founder of the UK Peking opera society, traveled to the Beijing Opera School in 1991 to study the art form. She was only the second foreign student in the school and was accepted only after help from influential friends. Today, many foreign students study Chinese opera and have become quite proficient, but never as much as the native Masters of the art form like Mei Lanfang, still considered one of the best Dan (female role) impersonators. Not unlike the Western opera tradition, Peking opera performers often are connected by their teachers and schools. Often performers from the same school or performers who have studied under the same teacher will perform together, and intense rivalries often spring up based on these "lineages." In Chinese opera, however, family relationships are also important. Often the children of famous opera performers will also become performers in their own right. In fact, it is extremely difficult to have a career in Chinese opera even today unless you have both a teacher connection as well as a familial connection to another established performer.
Chinese opera is broken up into many different "dialects" as they are called. In fact, there are over 300 different forms of Chinese opera. Most are regional and have longer histories than Peking Opera. One of the most famous is Kunqu (Kunchu or Kunju) opera. I was fortunate enough to see one of these Kunqu operas in Shanghai. Unlike traditional Peking Opera, Kunqu operas do not usually have contain acrobatics or clowns. The tone of the operas is softer and the subject matter is usually romantic. Watching this opera in a theatre in Shanghai was an amazing experience. Throughout the entire performance, the audience spoke amongst themselves, but not loud enough to disrupt the performance, it was a very dull roar that seemed to electrify the entire theater. Occasionally, the audience would quiet down for a particularly stirring aria and then burst into applause halfway through. Obviously there are many things I didn't understand during the performance, the language most of all, but I did get a sense that the piece was alive, and the relationship between the audience and the performance was much more present for me than with Western theater. It was as if the performance wasn't a service provided by the performers for the audience, but rather a joint venture that both performer and audience member entered into together. It was an experience I will never forget.