A Night at the Opera

14 Dec

Despite a childhood spent listening to the Phantom soundtrack, I’m not much of an opera fan. I like sweeping orchestral movements as much as and probably more than the next girl and there is a suspicious amount of classical music on my playlists, but opera never really struck me as something I wanted to do, unless it was a “dress up in a pretty evening gown and go into the City” kind of deal, but it’s within the realms of possibility.

Beijing Opera is a whole ‘nother ballpark. Possibly a stadium in another state on the opposite side of the country.

For those of you who have never had the experience of listening to classical Chinese music, you’re in for a treat. Chinese music is hard for Westerners to listen to. There are a lot of unusual instruments, the meter is way different so there will be random drums and bells or screeched Greek chorus at points you are not expecting to hear anything. Oftentimes, the jangling is enough to give me a headache, which isn’t saying much. The storylines follow cultural references that you’ve never heard of and everything is spoken in an old dialect of Chinese and incredibly tortured, a la Italian or German in Western operas.

I still went last night with Katia and other UW students to a showing of Sichuan Opera. What can I say, the tickets were free. (Go Huskies!)

This wasn’t a traditional Sichuan Opera – for one, they were wearing face paint, not masks. There’s more, but I wasn’t paying attention to the lecture and it’s been a while since my last Chinese Culture class. Apparently, this play won a top prize in France and was being shown again here in Chengdu. Good for them.

Anyways, our seats were front row center – it seems that UW doesn’t fuck around with nosebleed seats – and I spent most of the play taking pictures and explaining what was going on as far as I could tell, thanks the the subtitles located along the side of the stage and my kickass reading comprehension skills. (And the pocket dictionary. Can’t forget about that.)

Without further ado, The Story of the Red Plum Blossom.  (红梅记)

The story opens with a cute little prologue, something about ghosts and star-crossed love. I’m not really sure what they were saying here, but it looked cool. Let’s pretend they quoted the opening bit from “Romeo and Juliet” and move on.

The patriarch of this family has a problem. He has five loving, dutiful young daughters. Hui Niang (Bright Daughter) is the youngest and a problem child. She likes to sing. (I think.) The others try to keep her in line, but what can you do, eh?

The advisor, a comical figure who is slightly evil (you can tell based on the white patch on his face), suggests getting them a tutor, who just so happens to come on by looking for a job. The young, handsome scholar, Xiang Gong, is given an interview by the father. Here’s where my personal willing suspension of disbelief falls through. Look, I don’t care if you’re on your sabbatical to travel around China, dude, but if you placed first or second in the governmental civil service exams, you’re not going to be bumming around the local magistrate’s house serving as a tutor for girls.

The father gives Xiang Gong the bum rush, but it’s already too late – Hui Niang has seen him and fallen deeply in love in the time it takes her to pour the tea.

Daughter, I did not just catch you drooling at that poor scholar, do you understand me?

 Father is not amused. In fact, when Hui Niang pleads with him to be married off to Xiang Gong, he is enraged and kills her, after a daring dance-fight of whirling around while the older sisters beg ineffectually for mercy. Unmoved, Father stalks off, sword in hand and the dead Hui Niang is carried off stage in a dramatic fashion by house guards.

I said no dating and that’s FINAL.

A dramatic swirling fight between father and daughter.

You know, I would have gone for a stern talk, maybe dock her allowance or give her a grounding. Death’s a little final for looking at a boy, you know?

You drove me to this, daughter. This is your fault.

The unsuspecting Xiang Gong is given the run-around by the advisor. I have no idea what they were saying here, but a lot of it included minor word-play gags and the young scholar’s ideas being shot down a lot.

In the next scene, Hui Niang reappears in a white ensemble with a long train – a dramatic contrast to the dark stage.  The costume change symbolizes her death and return to the world as a ghost. She laments her untimely death and her unmarried state.** There’s a lot of posing dramatically and whirling around. Unfortunately, her long train tripped her up once; kudos to the actress for getting back up like it was no biggie.

It’s like Romeo and Juliet, if Juliet was already dead.

Now, the interlude with Xiang Gong and the advisor makes sense – Father has deemed Xiang Gong in need of a good killing as well, and so the evil advisor is the distraction for the assassin, who hides his sword cleverly when spotted. Sword-hiding is a common trope in Sichuan Opera and leads to a lot of comedic gags.

Ix-nay on the urder-may!

Somehow, Xiang Gong gets a reprieve. I think the assassin is going to come back at night or something. (Altair and Ezio think you’re a pansy and a chump, Chinese Assassin.) Anyways, this is when our young lovers meet. It’s all very cute; when Xiang Gong offers to bring Hui Niang home, she replies that they do not travel by common roads. This is the most conversation the couple has had so far. After some prevaricating, Hui Niang bites the bullet and tells her boytoy that she’s already dead. Her beloved freaks out, jumping up on a chair and then jumping behind it – impressive choreography considering the constricting robes and platform shoes.

He gets over his fear – Hui Niang is hot for a ghost chick, if you know what I mean – and the two declare their undying (….err) love under the branches of a plum tree.

Here’s where the story picks up: the assassin finally returns, this time with some help from the household guards. There’s a whole section which is the Sichuan Opera version of Scooby Doo, where the ghostly Hui Niang distracts the assassins away from her beloved.

Hui Niang is determined to keep Xiang Gong alive and safe from the assassin, and manages to manifest enough to protect him from sword blows, even using ghostly powers to keep the assassin away.  There’s an amusing interlude where the powers of good (random ghosts) fight the assassins off in a feat of acrobatics and a weird part where Xiang Gong, I am not making this up, has a bitch-fight with his own shadow. You know, the slapping sort of catfight. And it’s never mentioned again.

Your boyfriend’s kind of a coward, Hui Niang.

Xiang Gong takes this moment to come to the realization that if Hui Niang died for her love, then he might as well do the same. That way, the two of them can be together in death for all eternity. Chinese Romeo’s kind of a coward, though, so Xiang Gong would rather let the assassin win than kill himself.

You know what this play needs? More dead lovers.

Unfortunately, I don’t know how the story ends.

Right about here, I was dragged out of my seat and brought out of the theater with four of the UW students. We were honored guests and we were going to be given the honor of handing key members of the cast ginormous bouquets of flowers. I was picked mostly because I had to most Chinese under my belt, never mind that my speaking is abominable, and I cursed quite liberally under my breath. We were shooed onstage just after the final bows were taken. I ended up handing flowers to the Father, who looked pretty damn cool up close. I scooted off the stage in about five seconds flat once the flowers were delivered. Mercifully, I was not interviewed and did not have to give a speech in front of 500 Chinese people and CCTV cameras.

I shouldn’t be pissed off that this happened, but I kind of am. For once in my life, I was interested in Chinese Opera (probably because I took aspirin beforehand) and I missed the ending?! Gah. I am thankful that I could go see a play for free, don’t get me wrong. Thanks, UW, for funding my cultural excursion!

I hope you enjoyed the show, and remember, I watched it so you didn’t have to!

*Here’s where I put my caveat. I’m only mostly certain this is how it all went down. My reading skillz aren’t foolproof, you know.

** This is an actual bit of Chinese mythology. Young women who died unmarried frequently came back and haunted their families, since they couldn’t be added to the family rolls for ancestor worship. Parents would often “marry” their dead daughters to another family’s unmarried dead son, to placate the ghosts and make sure both of them were happy and not going to cause any more sicknesses or bad fortune. Ghost marriages were thought to be stamped out during the Maosit era, but are making a big comeback these days in rural areas like Shaanxi or Hubei.

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3 Responses to “A Night at the Opera”

  1. Dad December 14, 2011 at 10:28 pm #

    Most cool

  2. Karen December 15, 2011 at 6:01 am #

    Very interesting! It sounds like a real cultural experience. Now you can talk about it for the rest of your life, just like I like to tell people I saw the Beatles in concert. LOL Not quite the same is it?

  3. Trish! December 17, 2011 at 7:36 am #

    I loved the Plum Tree costume. All sorts of awesome.

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