A Night at the Szechuan Opera
|Opera singers decked in their colourful|
outfits entertaining the audience
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|
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
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
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
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.
|A puppeteer with his huge|
marionette balanced on his
shoulders shows off his
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
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