What makes the Peking Opera unique
A guide to Beijing's unique Peking Opera
Peking Opera, a popular twist on Chinese opera that emerged from Beijing in the 19th century, is unlike anything you've ever seen or heard. But don't let that put you off - this totally unique and unusual art form is easily appreciated with a few simple things to keep in mind.
There are many things in this world that one can easily fall in love with. Pizza. Kitten. If you're under 15, it's the band One Direction. Kitten meme. The list goes on and on, and unfortunately it won't include Peking Opera.
Believe us when we say it's not a thing that is so open to you, let alone actively enjoying Peking Opera, as you say, great candy crush skills. It is a difficult art form for the untrained eye and ear, and requires preliminary research and effort to truly understand the narrative and nuance that takes place on the operatic stage. And yet the Peking Opera is a unique and culturally breathtaking phenomenon.
To encourage and facilitate this extraordinary art form, we've put together a cheat sheet to summarize everything a beginner needs to know in order to get by, dare you say, even enjoy, a performance of Peking Opera.
You won't understand a single word spoken on stage.
This shouldn't be news to anyone, but Beijing (which is the old form of Beiiing) is sung in - surprise surprise - Mandarin Chinese. In fact, even native Chinese people have significant difficulty understanding the words that are actually sung. That's because Peking Opera actually contains a number of vocabulary and pronunciations from different dialects around China, a by-product of the different styles of Chinese opera that have been integrated over decades to establish what we now call the Peking -Know the style. In addition, certain Chinese phonemes that are not easy to vocalize and that are not carried well across a theater are distorted with added vowels, thereby changing the overall sound of a word or phrase. So don't take it personally, but even if you're a fluent Chinese speaker, that probably won't help you in a Chinese opera.
Meaning is everything; Accuracy is irrelevant.
Wait what Believe it or not, this is kind of an ethos in Chinese art in general. In essence, this means that every element of the production - the performers, the choreography, the sets, the props, the makeup, the sounds - all exist as a symbol of something more complicated than its literal manifestation on stage.
Often times, things like a simple gesture are used to convey something unspoken, but which is central to the audience. For example, walking in a wide circle indicates a long passage of time. Character traits are similarly expressed through a coded amount of colored makeup that the performers will wear. A face painted red indicates loyalty in a character while white is villainous.
Sets are minimalist, props sparse. An object is used with incredible ingenuity over the course of a production to convey a number of concepts to the audience, such as a chair that will later serve as a mountain on which a character can climb.
The Peking Opera unrestrainedly emphasizes beauty over substance, concept over discourse. Basically, just approach the night with the full understanding that not much is being made explicit to the audience.
Homework helps a lot.
By now, you've probably realized that it is extremely difficult to know all of the rules and traditions necessary to compete with a Beijing opera performance (much like China's version of a Rocky Horror Picture Show demonstration). So do yourself a favor and familiarize yourself with the basic story ahead of time so you can focus on the more complex layers of production. There is a limited repertoire of around 1,400 stories that opera companies assume and they are all very old stories from Chinese tradition or literature that are easy to read. And while these stories are seldom as simple as "Sleeping Beauty," it helps to have a rough idea of the rudimentary narrative so that you can pay close attention to all of the symbolism that comes off the stage.
A Chinese helps even more.
Peking opera in its most recent incarnation appeared around 1845, but Chinese opera has existed for at least seven centuries since the Song Dynasty. These centuries of refinement of the craft have infused Chinese opera, including the Peking style, with a great cultural nuance that is likely lost on the average Laowai (foreigner). If possible, bring a Chinese friend who will be happy to explain details or background information that you may miss. If you are concerned about being rude by whispering, don't be; The typical Chinese opera scene is much less stuffy than its western counterparts (and most viewers cannot understand what is being sung anyway).
The counterbalance to the spectacular cloakrooms at the Peking Opera is, however, the music. Sung in a different style than Western opera, the untrained ear most often interprets the Peking Opera style of singing as "shrill." That's not entirely a fair judgment - Beijing opera singers are wildly talented and powerful, some of the most skillful and prestigious performers in the world. But if you've never been exposed to the style of the song or instrumental music (typically a variety of traditional Chinese instruments such as the jinghu or the yueqin), adjusting your expectations can be a problem. Don't expect to love it the first time you listen - it can sound erratic, high-pitched, and overall bizarre at the points. We can't promise that will change over time. But it's all part of the wonderfully unique experience of attending a Beijing opera performance. So try to take it all, for better or for worse. It is well worth a little effort to appreciate this misunderstood but inexplicably compelling art form.
These are the most common praises and complaints that many non-Chinese viewers have about Peking Opera. If you follow the advice above and still feel hopelessly lost during your opera experience, the good news is that the stunning costumes and headwear will give you enough to enjoy your eyes while you wait for the break. The ornate brocades, rich colors, and cascading silks are a real visual masterpiece unlike anything you will ever see.
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