Thursday, November 15, 2012

A Night at the Szechuan Opera

Opera singers decked in their colourful
outfits entertaining the audience
ELLEN WHYTE spends a night at a Chinese opera in Chengdu and comes away awed
Pictures by ELLEN WHYTE

“TONIGHT we’re visiting the Opera!” Our guide May is mercifully unaware of the effect her announcement has on my mood. I love travel and I love what I’ve seen of China so far. The pandas are impressive, the temples terrific, the food amazing, and the country beautiful. But opera? I’ve seen some Chinese opera in Malaysia during the Hungry Ghost Festival and I am not a fan of it.

I don’t mind not understanding the plot or even being unable to tell who’s who. It’s the high-pitched wailing, oops, I mean singing, that makes my hair stand on ends and sends goose pimples down my arms.

As May is a darling and this is a treat organised by her bosses, I hide my feelings and smile. I decide to give it a whirl. If it’s really horrible, I can always plead a sudden headache and sneak off early in a taxi.

A solo viola recital
It’s just as well I went along because the Szechwan Opera was nothing like the shows I’ve seen before. The Szechwan Opera is fantastic.

The Szechwan Opera in Chengdu lies near Shu Feng Ya Yun tea house in the Cultural Park on Qintai Road. The building is set in some pretty grounds, but the inside has the feel of a school gym converted for the evening. What’s more, the walls could do with a touch of new paint, and the floors need sweeping.

What’s also unusual is that little shops flank the interior. They’re filled with ballet shoes, fans, jewellery and a medley of souvenirs. Everything you see is for sale, and the shop assistants are loud in praising their wares. They’re competing against in-house masseurs and vendors selling while-you-wait shoulder massages and ear candling sessions. If you’re used to opera being highbrow occasions, this “give-us-your-cash” attitude strikes an odd but cheerfully pragmatic note.

Applying make-up is an art
as this opera artiste shows
I was enjoying the sales pitch of a lady desperate to sell us a super lucky pendant for a really cheap price when May guided us firmly into to the back of the hall. There another delightful surprise awaited us: at this theatre, visitors are allowed to watch the stars get ready for the show. What’s even more surprising is that picture taking is not only allowed but encouraged.

As we have a glorious time putting our cameras to action, we quickly learn not to admire anything because every compliment inspires a sales person to rush over, desperate to make a sale.

Surprisingly, the actors go about their business without so much as a blink despite having us all underfoot. You might expect a few fits and temper tantrums from high-strung stars, but this crowd isn’t bothered. Within 45 minutes everyone is ready to go, and we’re herded into our seats.

The first act is musical. We’re entertained by a small orchestra, and then by a Zhong-Hu or Chinese viola solo. It’s light, interesting music and it sets the mood for a cheerful evening.

A musical introduction by some members
of the Szechwan Opera
Next are the opera singers. The makeup and costumes are colourful but we’ve no idea what’s going on. They could be singing a love song, declaring war, or complaining how hot they are from being swathed in six metres of draperies. When they start to wave their swords at each other in a graceful manner, we finally understand that they are sworn enemies.

Watching this made me acutely aware of the fact that you need to be familiar with the culture to appreciate the art. These people are considered among the best in the country, but as I have no idea what I’m watching, it’s impossible to value it.

When the actors hide their swords, the scene takes on a magical flavour. When a few of us Westerners clap in appreciation at a particularly skillful now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t, the frosty silence from the aficionados behind us hints strongly that our behaviour is considered uncouth.

Every time the actor waves his fan,
his mask changes colour
Our guide sees our bewilderment and whispers that this scene is from a famous battle. However, as our Chinese history is scanty, we don’t understand the significance of her hint. It doesn’t go on for long, and when they finish we all clap politely. I have the feeling though that the actors go off stage making comments about the agony of having to perform in front of ang mo boors and ignoramuses—and they’d be right!

The cultural part of the programme is now over, and the next hour consists of acts that are entertaining whether you are familiar with the language and the culture or not.

It kicks off with puppeteers who carry huge marionettes around the stage on their shoulders. There’s no attempt to put up a screen or to hide the people who are pulling the strings (or rather, pushing the sticks). Everyone just adjusts their attention to six feet above the stage, and enjoys the simple romance story on offer.

A puppeteer with his huge
marionette balanced on his
shoulders shows off his
artistic skill
When a comic skit featuring a drunk and his shrew of a wife starts, we finally understand how gifted the actors are. The comic duo incorporates Jackie Chan-style stunts into their act. The duo’s most impressive acts are balancing a lit candle on the head while tumbling over benches and carrying a glass of wine while flipping over chairs. Although we don’t understand the comic patter, the actors are so expressive that they have us rolling in the aisles.

The finale is a quick mask-changing scene. Again, we have no idea what the story is about, but it doesn’t matter. Each time the actors wave their huge fans or long sleeves, their masks change from green to blue to red to yellow and black. The split-second timing is magical and we are glued to our seats.

A comic skit by a duo who incorporate
Jackie Chan-style stunts into their act
When the show ends, the actors all come on stage and sing. It might be anything from “please buy a souvenir as you go” or “we all love our Glorious Chairman” but it’s been such fun that we all clap when they finish.

Clearly applause is now an appropriate response because the actors wave and shout friendly goodbyes as we leave. I can’t imagine Catherine Malfitano or Plácido Domingo hanging about on stage after a performance to shout, “See you all again soon!” but the Szechwan Opera team are in a class by themselves. If you ever have the opportunity, go see them perform. You’ll have a blast!

Reproduced from the July-September 2012 issue of Quill magazine


Post a Comment

<< Home