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Peking Opera and The Legend of White Snake

Updated: 2014-12-02 10:08:57

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Peking Opera is an exciting and satisfying form of theater. As an art, it is well integrated, with story, singing, acting, gesture, costume, stagecraft, gymnastics and makeup all being very important. You couldn't get a job as a Peking Opera actor if you hadn't mastered the intricacies of gesture, no matter how good your voice is.

Peking Opera doesn't subdivide characters by soprano, lancer, bass and so on, but by the type of character. The qingyi is the main female character, almost always positive and loving. The xiaosheng is the scholar-lover, and he sings in a falsetto voice, sounding a bit like a woman. The older man is the laosheng and so on. These classifications are as old as Chinese theater itself, but have become much more complicated with the passage of time. In the old days just about all performers were male. Actors had a very low social status. However, this changed in the twentieth century, especially under the People's Republic of China. Nowadays, there are just about as many female actors as male, and they have a good social status.

On the things about Chinese acting that is very special is the link between gymnastics and the actor. Battle scenes are very common in traditional theatre, and they are represented by spectacular gymnastics. Of course it's mainly men who do these gymnastics, since they are the ones most involved in battles. However, there are quite a few heroic female warriors in Chinese opera. Formerly they were played by men, but no longer.

In the most traditional Peking Opera, the stage is quite bare, with just a couple of chairs, a table and a mat. In the last few decades there is more scenery, and operas have beautiful landscape, such as mountains and lakes.

Over the last century and more, Chinese drama has undergone a process of reform and modernization. In the olden times, operas were rather episodic, in other words, you'd have a short item of less than an hour, telling a simple story which was based, for example, on one chapter of a novel. But in the recent times, it's very common for an opera to take up a whole evening. It has a developing story that rises to a climax and ends in a denouement, rather the way dramas do in the Western Tradition.

There are over 300 kinds of regional theatre in China, most of them taking the name of the place where they developed and got popular. The earliest records of fully developed Chinese dramas - not counting dances with stories, skits and sort of thing - were in the twelfth century and in southern China. There was also a magnificent tradition of Chinese opera in the north when the Mongols ruled China in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Hardly any of the ancient southern dramas are still extant, either text or music. We still have many texts of northern dramas from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, but no music.

In the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), regional operas developed and flowered and many still survive, both text and music. An early form is called Kun Opera, after Kunshan, the place very near Shanghai where it started. This was an elegant style, dominated by the wistful tones of the sideblown Chinese flute dizi. The Cantonese Opera, which is especially popular among overseas Chinese in Australia, appears to have begun in the eighteenth century. Peking Opera developed at the end of eighteenth century in the capital of China, Beijing and was a combination of various other forms of regional theatre. During the nineteenth century it became acknowledged as the style that could represent China as a whole.

The Kun Opera was for centuries the theater of the aristocracy. Many educated men had their own private troupes and there were also companies at the imperial court, composed mostly of eunuchs. However, the majority of the forms of regional opera were genuine popular theatre. At certain times of the year, especially festivals, they would roam round the countryside performing for the people. The performers would set up a temporary stage or find a place in the local market or temple and perform all day. You didn't need a theatre and most people didn't have to pay. You can still find this in China today, and in the countryside there are still quite a few amateur folk companies that perform at certain times in the year. But in the cities most performances nowadays take place in a theatre. Traditional Chinese opera is in decline, and many of the old troupes have gone out of business. Young people don't go for the old operas much and it doesn't have ring of being "modern", something that matters a great deal in China nowadays. However, it is still very much alive. Entry into the schools is still very competitive and there are many very good actors coming up. You can see from the performance of The Legend of White Snake that there are still first-rate performers on the traditional Chinese stage. There remains a faithful core audience (mainly middle-aged and older) from which Peking Opera continues to draw its strangest fans. All the traditional opera companies, including those performing Peking Opera, are looking for ways to increase their appeal to Chinese as well as foreign audiences. There are also several theatres in Beijing now set up especially to attract foreign and overseas Chinese visitors rather than the city's ordinary citizens.

The stories of traditional Chinese theatre are mostly based on Chinese history, novels and old dramas. Almost all of them take place in China itself. Many are about old battles and ancient heroes of ancient times, rebellions and myths. In sharp contrast to western operas, traditional pieces are not attributed to particular composers of librettists. However, in the twentieth century, especially under the People's Republic, particular playwrights have adopted old stories to new dramas, which musicians set to music composed in the traditional style. The Legend of White Snake (Baishe Zhuan) is an example of this. The opera's libretto is by Tian Han and its premiere was in 1952.

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