An Evening of Beijing Opera and Chinese Music
UK Beijing Opera Society
National Centre for Early Music, York
There's much more to the NCEM than early music - this beautiful little venue, a converted church in the heart of York, regularly plays host to many distinguished jazz, folk and world musicians. The NCEM also co-ordinates York's Chinese New Year Festival, and the UK Beijing Opera Society's performance certainly got the Year of the Dog off to a flying start.
Although the origins of Chinese opera lie much further back in time than those of its Western counterpart, the distinctive Beijing performance style dates back to the late 18th century and attained its present form in the mid-19th century. Newcomers to the genre will not be surprised to learn that history and mythology were important sources of inspiration to Beijing composers, just as they were to Verdi and Handel, but there the resemblance to Western opera ends. The instruments tend to punctuate rather than support the vocal line, which is a mixture of singing and exaggerated speech, and there is no chorus or elaborate set.
The first of two short works for solo performer was The Hu Family Manor, in which the warrior Lady Sanniang - her name means "seven feet of steel" - prepares to go into battle. The heroine was played by Ione Meyer, one of the few Westerners to have studied Beijing opera in China. She conveyed the story through a combination of song, dance and elaborate mime, a feat made even more impressive by the fact that her helmet was topped with a pair of enormously long feathers. Meyer's ability to manage these appendages whilst simultaneously twirling her pike in the manner of a bandleader's baton obviously delighted the large and enthusiastic audience!
The second piece was The Goddess Scattering Flowers From Heaven, in which a temple goddess (Meyer again) comes to life in order to console a living Buddha grieving over the sins of mankind. One feels that only the most curmudgeonly individual could resist the goddess as she danced with her long blue sash, using it to create rippling patterns in the air and on the ground.
Between the two operas the musicians played a wide-ranging selection of Chinese music. The soloists were Johanna Qui (Beijing opera fiddle and two-stringed violin), Cheng Yu (7-stringed zither and 4-stringed lute) and Li Ming (gourd pipe and bamboo flute). The ensemble was completed by Lui Haishu (clappers, drum and gong) and Ashley Thorpe (small gong and narration).
I for one left the NCEM determined to find out more about Beijing opera. My only reservation about the evening was that, although it was an excellent introduction to a fascinating and unfamiliar art form, neither the single A4 sheet provided in lieu of a programme nor the brief narration gave anything like enough background information. One hopes that this little shortcoming will be rectified when the UK Beijing Opera Society returns to York - perhaps with a full-length work?
Reviewer: J. D. Atkinson