Beijing Opera does have singing in it, yes, but it is much more like a pantomime with music, dance, mime, choreographed fights and acrobatics as well, and with dramatic, vivid costumes and make-up, exaggerated movements and gestures. It is theatrical and dramatic, and not supposed to be at all realistic but to deal with the timeless themes of human experience using symbolism. Stories are either romantic folk tales which are generally light-hearted and comic, or action epics based on military exploits from the rich history with lots of acrobatics and skilful fight scenes. They are moral and philosophical tales with universal themes and therefore they do not require much in the way of scenery or props and usually take place on bare stages. Walking in a large circle represents a long journey, an oar represents a boat, and a whip a horse for example. Usually there is just a table and chairs on the stage, and these can represent a mountain, a bridge, and so on.
Stories feature a handful of stock characters such as the clown, the wise old man, dashing young hero, innocent girl, spirited concubine, and so on. Older men wear fake beards, and the clown has white paint on his nose, so all the cast in Beijing Opera are specific types, their status and character represented by their costumes and make-up, and are instantly recognisable by the audience. Colours represent character, red for loyalty and righteousness, white for wickedness, brown for stubborness, yellow for ambition or cunning, black for goodness and valour, blue for heroism, green for rash violence, gold and silver for gods and spirits, and these are seen in the costume designs where the higher ranking characters wear symbolic colours such as purple or yellow or red and heavily embroidered robes. Lower ranking characters wear simpler costumes in duller colours, but all have the extra-long sleeves known as water sleeves that can be flicked about by the wrist to show emotion and create the circular rounded movements that are essential elements of a good performance. All movements on stage are sweeping and circular movements rather than straight lines – the actors even roll their eyes when looking at someone or something, rather than just simply looking across.
Songs are sung in a high pitch with a nasal tone and lots of vibrato, the lyrics are written in rhyming couplets in an old-fashioned Beijing slang. Music is provided by traditional Chinese instruments which are versions of fiddles, lutes, horns and pipes, as well as drums, cymbals, gongs and castanets – it’s noisy, and that’s perhaps why the singing is so piercing, to make itself heard!
Although Beijing Opera has a long history with hundreds of traditional plays in its repertoire that draw on episodes of Chinese history and literature, more and more is being written based on contemporary life, and also based on Western culture with many of Shakespeare’s plays being produced as Beijing Opera. Even the Communists produced the ideologically-sound Eight Model Plays about the Japanese occupation, the class struggles after the civil war and the foundation of the republic, but nowadays people prefer old-fashioned stories from the good old days.
If you would like a great evening out, to see a performance of Beijing Opera together with that other Beijing speciality, a Peking Duck dinner, contact Tara at ReadyClickAndGo by emailing tara@ReadyClickAndGo.com to arrange tickets, restaurant and pick-up from your hotel in Beijing. http://bit.ly/9nrO3b
Tara can also arrange a behind-the-scenes visit to meet the actors whilst they prepare for a performance, along with a walking tour through Beijing’s hutongs and a demonstration of how to make dim sum, on a fascinating full-day excursion http://bit.ly/9EouML