Ever since my parents exposed me to the Peking opera when I was a little girl, I have been intrigued by it and have wanted to see it live. On the last night of my month-long China trip I got that chance. To prepare myself I read a bit on what makes a performance good and 180 yuan later I found myself in the back row of what we would call the orchestra section.
Upon arriving to the theater, I already noticed a difference. The building itself seemed rather unassuming and the attendees seemed less pretentious than many Western opera, especially in North America. There was no valet parking, no fur coats and no tacky chandelier. Instead, it seemed like ordinary people enjoying a beloved art form.
There seemed to be no late policy at all as people came and went as they pleased. Also talking during the performance was of no consequence. In fact, it seemed quite common to turn to your neighbor and express your reaction to the scene. Especially after living in Germany, where silence translates to respect of the performers, the composer and the music itself, this took some getting used to. People were also free to take pictures of the performers and I saw several people set up tripods to record the entire production. There were two very professional looking cameras there as well and I was told that each performance gets recorded and is shown on CCTV so the entire country can enjoy it. I wish this were the case in my country too.
Knowing nothing about the storyline of Jade River, I asked the gentlemen on either side of me if they spoke English. One did and as he struggled to find the words to tell me the plot, he accidentally let a German word slip. Hearing this, I switched to German and it turned out that he had lived in Dusseldorf for ten years hence his German was much better than his English. The plot was so similar to so many other operas I had seen with the common theme of love at its forefront. A man and a woman wanted to be together but something got in the way: in this case, the woman was accused of murdering her last husband. Sorry to spoil the ending for you, but they end up together in the end. 🙂
Unlike Western opera where the applause must wait until the end of an aria, or in the case of Wagner at the end of the entire performance, audience feedback was rather immediate, which of course helped me learn what is considered exceptional in this art form. I also learned what to listen and watch for. Apparently Chinese opera’s visual component is just as important as the musical component. Sometimes there was applause and hoots and hollers after a performer moved in a certain way on stage. The use of color seemed extraordinary and I’d love to learn more about that and all it represents. In my opinion, Wagner would have loved Chinese opera due to the apparent Gesamtkunstwerk (combination of various forms of art coming together).
Given my operatic vocal training I was especially eager to hear the vocal style of Chinese opera. I had read that a wide vibrato, or tremolo, is desired which is the opposite of Western opera where it is seen out of control and difficult to perform with. I found this style of singing lended itself more easily to conveying certain emotions such as grief. Besides obvious sections of arias, recitative sections were also present. The style of singing here was unlike I had seen in any traditional Western opera and to compare it I find myself having to look to the operas in the New Music era. To me it can be compared with the Sprechstimme (speech song – in the middle of speaking and singing) found in Berg and Schoenberg’s works. It was quite beautiful.
I regret not knowing Mandarin because there were so many times that the Chou (clown character distinguished by the white paint on his face) made the audience laugh. Sometimes the humor was visual so I was able to join in.
Another aspect of the opera experience that I really enjoyed was that the orchestra was on stage with the rest of the performers. They were situated just off stage left and included three stringed instruments and, my favorite, the percussion.
The curtain call at the end was very understated. It was not the grand affair, where the “smaller roles” come out first and the lead characters come out at the end, making several bows, I am used to. In this case, all the performers came out in a line together, including the instrumental musicians that had been on the side. Bouquets of flowers for everyone, a couple humble bows and a few waves…that was it. I got the impression that every musician and actor, no matter what the role, was valued.
Overall, it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience and I would buy a ticket again in a heartbeat.