Cina: da un posto qualsiasi..
Peking opera is one of the most famous parts of Chinese culture when it comes to performance and music.
With a history of about 2000 years, it merges singing and music, dance and martial arts, acting and mime,
to create a beautiful and complex show.
Different provinces developed their own version and style of opera, but the most ancient of all started in Beijing.
Peking opera was first developed in the capital during the Qing Dynasty, and was influenced by the culture of many different
communities within China.
It was fully developed and recognized in the 19th century, and is now considered a must-see: though the term
is 'Beijing opera'troupes are also based in Tianjin and Shanghai.
Performing in the Peking Opera is extremely demanding: this opera has a unique singing style, and performers must
train for years to be able to master the traditional melodic rhythm and falsettos incorporated
in the show.
Singing is extremely important in Peking Opera because it gives a whole other level to the story,
using the tone of voice, volume, and rhythm to convey characters, the relationships between them,
and the storyline.
Performers also have to be fit and agile when it comes to body movements: the whole opera is a sort of dance,
with each character using fluid movements to transition from, say, walking, to acrobatic movements.
Because the opera is usually performed on a thrust stage, where the audience is seated at three of the four sides
of the stage, there cannot be a lot of setting items.
So, there's a lot of symbolism:
a horse whip can show the horse, with its color conveying the horse's color, and the movements of the performed showing the age, strain, and speed of the horse.
Performers must be able to master all these different aspects of this art form to be able to give the performance.
Of course, music is also crucial:
there will usually be a section at the side of the stage reserved for a small orchestra of musicians, who play traditional Chinese instruments to transport the audience back to ancient times.
Sometimes there will be singers at the side, and the performers on stage will only mime the words to better focus
on the movements on stage.
At the mention of Peking Opera, most may immediately think to the masks and facial makeup used:
rarely do we see the face of the performer, more often we see the character.
There are four main archetypes of characters in Peking Opera.
Sheng is the name given to male characters in the opera.
They are normally divided into Lao Sheng and Xiao Sheng.
Lao Sheng means 'old man', and will be represented with Sheng makeup and a beard.
This type of character is typically very wise, a guide in the plot of the story.
Xiao Sheng, on the other hand, is a younger male lead, typically the hero or main character of the play.
Dan is the name given to female characters in the opera.When women weren't allowed to perform men would play these
There are dozens of sub-categories where different masks and makeup convey the woman's personality
and social status.
For example, WuDan is a tough and 'tomboy' woman who is skilled at fighting.
Jing is the name given to forceful male roles, typically with negative undertones.
The actor playing Jing must have a strong voice, a firm presence on stage, and be able to exaggerate gestures
to appear strong, and at times, cruel.
Chou is the comedy role, and is characterized with having the performer's nose painted with white powder.
Chou means 'ugly' in Chinese, and this role is the clown, or the villain.
In other words, dodgy.
Masks are used to show the character's personality to the audience.
Each color symbolizes different traits the character has, and oftentimes a mask may have more than one color
to show the complexity of characters.
However, the main features of the character's personality will be the main color on their face, typically stretching
from the forehead to the cheeks, eyes, and nose.
Red, for example, a lucky color in China (Read about different Chinese superstitions at
shows decency, courage, and determination;
black shows a selfless and bold character;
gold and silver is for gods and spirits;
and green is reserved for someone who is violent and aggressive, lacking self-control.
Storylines often follow heroes and villains with romance and adventure. Often they are set during the
time of various dynasties, telling historical events and journeys.
However, the focus of Peking Opera isn't to recreate an event, or to be historically accurate, per se.
Its focus is to emphasize the meaning and feeling of the story.
This is achieved by making the entire show very aesthetic and beautiful, with use of the masks, elegant movements,
the music I talked about previously, and sequined costumes which shimmer with bright colors.
All this is used to create different atmospheres in the show, conveying various emotions to the audience.
Peking Opera is extremely complicated, as it can be seen from the combinations of facial makeup, masks, and costume.
It is also performed using a mix of modern and classic Chinese, as well as using words from different dialects.
Because of this, people who go to the opera must be well informed to be able to understand and appreciate it:
Liu Hua, a former performer and current teacher, said,
"The more you know about Beijing opera, the more you love it.
The problem is that it takes a lot to know it, and fewer and fewer people have the time or the inclination."
And it is true that the number of people watching is declining over the years.
Many young Chinese don't particularity care for the opera as it doesn't capture modern life,
and it runs at a very slow pace compared to other entertainment in the media.
This has made troops try to incorporate more action that grabs the viewer's attention instead of remaining loyal to
traditional, which has raised discontent to seniors in China who remember when the traditional
Peking Opera was the only form of entertainment in their day.
This 'tradition vs modernity' debate can be found in many aspects of Chinese culture due to the rapid industrialization
of the country over recent years.
To salvage the art, many troops are starting to hold free performers in public spaces, encouraging passersby
to stay and watch.
There was a period of time when a small troupe came to the mall I live close to:
right at the back, near the entrance of the parking lot, they set up a stage and curtains, and held performances a couple times a week for a few months.
There was always quite a crowd, but never enough.
Peking Opera is a beautiful art but it may not survive this 'modern era' China is going through.
If you ever have the opportunity I'd highly recommend going to see a show. Not only will it help
the troupes trying to maintain this ancient form of art, but you will learn a crucial part of Chinese culture.
Cortesia di L.B.
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