Peking Opera, the unique theatrical synthesis of song and dance, acting and acrobatics, was originally a form of local theatre in North China, but its popularity has now spread throughout China. Like most Chinese local operas, it is truly a comprehensive art combining stylized acting with singing, acrobatics, and colorful costumes. It has become the most popular and influential of more than a hundred kinds of dramatic forms on the Chinese stage.
Peking Opera began to emerge in its present form more than 200 years ago to the time of Qing Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795). On his frequent hunting expeditions in south-central China, Emperor Qianlong developed an interest in the local operas. In 1790, to celebrate his 80th birthday, he summoned opera troupes from different localities to perform for him in Beijing. Four famous troupes from Anhui Province remained in Beijing after the celebrations, and the vigorous clear tunes of Anhui Opera gradually re-placed Kunqu Opera, which had been popular in the palace and among the upper classes in Beijing. In 1828, a Hubei troupe came to Beijing and of- ten performed together with the Anhui troupes. These two types of singing blended on the same stage and gradually gave birth to a new genre, which came to be known as Beijing Opera. Therefore, Beijing Opera has incorporated the best elements from operatic forms.
In the early part of the 20th century, millions went to the opera house-more like a teahouse or a variety theatre-and largely through the acting genius of the late Mei Lanfang (1894-1961), Peking Opera even influenced Western artists such as British Film Artist Charles Spencer Chaplin ), and German playwright and poet Bertold Brecht.
The singing in Peking Opera is highly stylized but its variations of rhythm and pitch enable the performer to express the thoughts and emotions of different characters in different situations. Recitatives may be in dialogue and monologue form; either a special kind of musical speech, yun-bai (spoken parts in Peking Opera where the traditional pronunciation of certain words is slightly different from that in current Beijing dialect), or standard spoken Chinese, Jingbai (parts in Peking Opera spoken in Beijing dialect or capital vernacular) may be employed. Acting in Peking Opera encompasses a set range of movements, gestures and expressions. Every movement or pose, such as stroking a beard, setting a hat straight, swinging a sleeve or lifting a foot, has its own“formula” or pattern, which has been reduced to its essentials and perfected.
The art of illusion is one of Peking Opera’s most important characteristics, expressed through techniques of exaggeration and concentration. It is said that Peking Opera performers conquer time and space. Backdrops and stage props are kept to a minimum; often a table and two chairs in front of a big curtain is regarded as sufficient. The three dimensional stage props of modern Western drama are seen as superfluous or even as an encumbrance. The performers use gestures and-body movements to represent actions such as opening and closing a door, going up or down a building or a mountain, and embarking, disembarking or travelling by boat. A decorated whip represents a horse, a paddle, a boat and two pennants embroidered with wheels of a carriage. When an actor walks in a circle, it means he has gone on a long journey. Four generals and four soldiers signify an army and fighting in the dark through dance and acrobatics on a ‘brightly lit stage. By such techniques, passed down and developed by generations of performers, Peking Opera has-made it possible to transform a small stage into the whole universe.
Stringed and wind instruments are used for the musical accompaniment to Peking Opera, but even more characteristic as the percussion instruments-gongs and drums of different sizes and types, and castanets made of padauk wood and bamboo. The most important stringed instrument is the Jinghu (a kind of two-stringed fiddle) followed by the erhu (also a two-stringed fiddle), plus some plucked instruments such as yueqin (a kind of mandolin with four strings). The stringed instruments are played in unison but do not practice Western-style harmony.
The character roles in Peking Opera are finely differentiated according to age and disposition. Female roles are called dan, male roles are sheng, clowns are chou. Roles characterized by the use of different patterns of facial make-up which distinguish a rough, frank character from a cruel or sinister one are called jing jiao or hua lian (painted faces); the audience knows from the colours and patterns what kind of character is being portrayed. For instance, red signifies loyalty and courage, yellow signifies fierceness, white usually signifies villainy and black signifies honesty- and straightforwardness. Spirits, monsters, immortals and Buddhas are often identified by gold and silver. There are different performing styles also for each of these role types, including different styles of singing.
The elaborate and gorgeous costuming of Peking Opera is one of its special characteristics. They are based on the style of the Ming Dynasty costume, with much use of deep red, deep green, yellow, white, black and blue. Strongly contrasting colors are freely used, and embroidery in gold, silver and colored thread. They are strict rules for costumes based on rank character and life-style. The stage props are decorated and beautified versions of their real-life counterparts, and are often works of art in them-selves.
The plot-development of Peking Opera does not conform to the general pattern of other types of drama. In modem theatre and drama, the struggle between heroes and villains is gradually developed, and the final outcome is left to the end. But in Peking Opera, the heroes and villains revealed as soon as they appear on the stage. The audiences for Peking Opera, have gone beyond the desire to know the outcome: they are already familiar with the plots about the Monkey King, Xiang Yu the Conqueror, the women generals of the Yang family. It is rather the magic of the performance itself and the skilful techniques of the singing, dancing and acrobatics, which attract them. For this reason the same piece can be seen over and over a- gain without boredom. The first performer to introduce Beijing Opera abroad was the famous dan, actor Mei Lanfang (1894-1961), who went to Japan in 1919, to the United States in 1929 and the Soviet Union in 1935. In 1932, another famous Peking Opera, Cheng Yanqiu, made a tour of Europe and gave performances and lectures. Since 1949 Peking Opera troupes have made frequent trips abroad, to places such as Japan, Europe, Latin America, the United States and Africa. Today Peking Opera has won high praise throughout the world.
Recently, traditional opera has undergone something of a renaissance and there are performances nightly in Beijing. Overseas tourists should not miss the opportunity to see one, even though tourists will be baffled by much of it. Most operas are based on folk mythology or classical literature, but don’t worry about the plots (even many Chinese have difficulty following the archaic language and the words of songs are usually screened at the side of the stage to assist audiences). What impresses the audience most is the sumptuous costumes and make-up and the acrobatic battle scenes (like circus performers, opera artists are rigorously trained from early child-hood.) Everything in the opera has significance from the embroidery on a robe indicating the wearer s rank to the pattern and colour of his make-up, expressing character. As in other Asian dance forms, gestures, even of fingers and eyes, are all-important. And mime is a key element. Very few people are used and it is up to the actor to show, by lifting a foot that he is going through a doorway, or by waving a whip that he is riding a horse.
Swords and staves will be brandished and twirled at breakneck speed in flight sequences without the actors ever touching one another. For the aficionados, it is the singing that matters (old timers talk of “listening to” rather than “watching” an opera,) but the lengthy arias may seem strange to ears raised on Western harmonies.
Likewise the harsh, percussive sounds of the orchestra, which sits on one side of the stage and is led by an “ erhu, “ or two-stringed Chinese fiddle.
Among the most famous Peking Operas are “the Monkey King,” “the Drunken Beauty, ” “the White Snake”“Crossroads, ” “ a Fisherman’ s Revenge, “ and “Strategy of an Unguarded City.” But for the newcomer, program of excerpts featuring the highlights of two or three operas is recommended, since entire performance may prove a little much to take at one setting.
Theatres regularly presenting Peking Opera include Chang’ an, Liyuan at Qianmen Hotel: an3 Hunan Guild.