Sunday, November 01, 2009

Chinese Opera Comes to Anchorage

The first time I saw Chinese Opera was sometime in 1967 or 1968. I was teaching English at the Boys High School in Kamphaengphet, Thailand and the Chinese community had hired a group from Singapore to perform for some special occasion. There was a trailer that converted into a stage that was set up in a public area in town. The folding chairs were set out for the members of the Chinese community who sponsored the opera. The rest of the town could stand behind the chairs and watch. In a small town like that I got to visit backstage and meet with the actors. [I started this on Saturday and turned the house upside down trying to find some pictures of that first encounter with Chinese opera. In vain. But when I find them one day, I'll post them. This picture here is from UAA's website.]

Chinese opera is like asparagus. It's an acquired taste that requires small samples over time. I've had various opportunities over the years, to see bits and pieces of Chinese opera. Several more times in Thailand. Then when we lived in Hong Kong for a year, at the night market there were always small groups of actors/singers who would perform a scene or two on the street.

In China, Chinese opera was on television every night and once when I was there for a conference they took us to a performance for tourists. It was interesting because they explained things in English and they only showed short scenes. I'm sure the tourist agencies had discovered that most tourists couldn't last through too much Chinese opera. Besides the fact that it is all in a foreign language, the screechy singing and scratchy sounds of the stringed instruments, well, that's the part that takes getting used to.

Now it's a relatively familiar sound that brings back good memories.But I'm confident that at this performance they will give short glimpses of different operas with English explanations so that it should be easier for novices to understand what is happening.

So, come Tuesday, November 3, 2009

UAA's Wendy Williamson Auditorium
7pm (doors open at 6:30) Free!

Well, nothing is free. This is offered by the Confucius Institute at UAA. As I've said in an earlier post, this is sponsored by the Chinese government to promote Chinese language and culture around the world. And people speculate less savory agendas, but no more, I'm sure, than the US and other governments promote with their cultural outreach into other countries. If the Confucius Institute is merely a cultural exchange or a branch of the Chinese takeover of the world*, your taking this opportunity won't have much of an impact on their agenda, but you'll get to experience an art form that has been around for a thousand years or more. [*I'm mostly joking. Even if the worst fears about Confucius Institutes as outposts to monitor overseas Chinese is true, they will play only the tiniest role in China's increasingly important role in the world. And if you take the threat seriously, consider this an opportunity to get to know your enemy.]

The UAA website has a detailed description of the scenes they will be playing so I encourage you to visit that, even print out some of the descriptions before you go. If you take kids, and by all means do, letting them act out the scenes before you go would be great preparation. Let them watch some Chinese Opera videos on line (there are two below). The makeup and the costumes will be spectacular. I think kids can relate to the music better than adults who already have formed notions of what proper music is.

The first video looks like a Chinese television show about modern kids who are studying Chinese Opera. It's all in Chinese, but it shows practicing, putting on makeup, some performances. I think kids can relate to other kids even if it isn't in English. If they don't like this one, find another one and let them dance to the music and play one or two of the scenes described on the UAA website. They'll be a lot more interested when they see the real thing.

From the Illuminated Lantern, a site that reviews Asian movies, I've excerpted this description of the form of Chinese opera, but the whole piece, which is a description of the historic forms of Chinese opera is well worth a peek.

Although there are many different regional styles, they all share many similarities. Each have the same four role types: the female, the male, the painted-face, and the clown. Performances consist of singing, poetry, music, dance, and gesture. Emphasis is on costume and makeup rather than props or scenery. The operas often tell the same stories, though with various regional differences, such as alternate endings or additional characters. The information described within this article will, unless otherwise noted, pertain to Peking Opera specifically, and the regional operas more generally.

We can see four roles here in this description of one of the pieces to be presented Tuesday (from the UAA website.)

Autumn River 京剧《秋江》片段

This story happened during the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279). Scholar Pan Bizheng is staying with his aunt at a Taoist temple when he falls in love with the Taoist nun Chen Miaochang. His aunt finds out and forces him to leave his love behind and go to Beijing to take the imperial examination. When Chen Miaochang learns that Pan is leaving, she runs to the bank of the Autumn River and hires an old fisherman to follow him. The two meet on the road, travel to Beijing and get married.
The role of Chen Miaochang is played by Hua Shan.

Clearly Scholar Pan is the male role and Taoist nun Chen is the female role. I'm guessing the old fisherman is the clown and that leaves the aunt as the painted face, but I'm just guessing.

Don't miss this. Bring the kids. Sit as close as you can or bring binoculars. And since it's free, if you tire quickly, you can leave without feeling you've lost your money. And you'll forever be able to say you've seen Chinese Opera live, and if you're lucky, you'll get hooked.

If you've never heard it before, it is a bit of a shock to Western ears, so check out this video of Teochew dialect opera (the kind I first heard in Thailand) so it will be a bit familiar when you come Tuesday night. This is from yeohts8192289 at Veoh, he's from Penang, Malaysia.

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