At the Peking Opera, the audience brings in Chinese Take-Out and enjoys it at tables in the Orchestra section.
I did my homework before my last trip to China. Since I was already familiar with at least a dozen Chinese cuisines, my research centered on a different area, the Peking Opera, just one of the 300 documented regional styles of opera in China.
While Peking Opera, sung in Mandarin, has a formal relationship with the audience, there is a less formal structure of viewing the Cantonese opera. “People chatter, eat, move about, and the official language is often replaced by colloquialisms,” says Louise Bak, a U of T graduate who’s M.A. thesis explored women’s involvement in Cantonese opera. A clearly different scenario from the west, where we are intolerant at the sound of too much coughing.
So when my hosts said, “this evening we will have a traditional Beijing dinner at the Temple of the Moon, and then attend the Peking opera,” I was delighted. They were secretly amused. Experience had taught them that Westerners usually take about 10 minutes of this unique theatre before they beg to leave, pleading the exhaustion of travel. They thought they’d have an early night, but I surprised them. They didn’t know I was committed to the entire two hour performance.
The Peking Opera, Jingiu, is an assimilation and merging of opera companies from four provinces in China with the local Beijing Jingdaio. What has evolved is a performance style which combines music, recitation and breathtaking acrobatics in an entertainment extravaganza.
There are four basic roles in Peking opera Sheng (male), Dan (female) Jing (painted faces of warriors, demons, heroes) and chou (clowns) recognized by the white patch around nose and eyes. Within each category there are yet more detailed divisions classified according to the sex, age, personality and social status of each character. Each painted face is fraught with symbolism.
Since respectable women did not perform on stage, female impersonators played their roles, and in the 1920s 30s and 40s some of these impersonators were among the countries greatest opera stars. Even now, female divas still use the mannerisms and vocal techniques developed when the roles were played by men.
No amount of text book knowledge could have prepared me for this experience of the Peking Opera performance of the highly dramatic The Monkey King, one of the most beloved heroes of Chinese literature. English surtitles are provided.
The theatre is huge, ornate and old, built in the traditional style. As we hurried to our seats I became aware of the strong aroma of hot food! For many locals the Peking Opera is dinner theatre. They bring take away Chinese food to the theatre and sit in the dining area of the orchestra section. One is also encouraged to order tea and sweets and eat during the performance.
There is a hush as the curtains open, and from the audience a rustle of appreciation for the painted backdrop. And then it begins, a cacophony of drums, gongs, cymbals, relentless in their beating rhythms. Eventually this gives way to strings, flutes, pipes and singing. First the sounds are shocking, discordant and un-musical to my ears. As I get into the story and began to understand that’s the percussion instruments create the strong dramatic atmosphere and the strings create a stirring melancholy mood. I am totally mesmerized by the spectacle
The Monkey King is an allegorical story, based on the travels, trials and tribulations of a rebellious monk, Xuan Zang (602 – 664) and his voyage, on foot, to India. The story is intermingled with fables and fairytales, superstitions, popular concepts and legends from Taoist and Buddhist beliefs. It is told with eloquence and the grand gesture, fire and smoke, acrobatics and graceful dancing, performed by artist costumed in an exaggerated Ming Dynasty style with flowing sleeves, feathers and brightly coloured embroidered silks. In the end, the Monkey King returns to his home, the Mountain of Flowers and Fruits.
During the Cultural Revolution, Jiang Qing, Chairman Mao’s wife, decreed that no traditional opera be performed. During that’s bleak period, the opera schools closed and a 2000 year old art form was almost lost. Now, it is regaining popularity. In an impressive experiment, they have combined Western drama and traditional Chinese operatic style, and produced a highly innovative adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, as a modern Peking opera. A cultural fusion worthy of much admiration.
Sara Waxman is an award-winning restaurant critic, best-selling cookbook author, food and travel journalist and has eaten her way through much of the free world for four decades, while writing about it in books, newspapers and magazines. She is the Editor in Chief of DINE and Destinations magazine.