Peking Opera UK Tour
Tianjin Municipal Youth Peking Opera Troupe
Who better to introduce this exotic opera form to England than a heralded award winning opera troupe, who’ve already toured to a number of other countries? Well perhaps.
As a regular audience member at the opera, it is always exciting to have the opportunity to see something out of the ordinary. Peking Opera is touring from China, and delivering a show that is a very traditional form of Chinese Theatre. Combining music, singing, mime and dance / acrobatics, this is an art form relatively unknown in the west.
As a reviewer, it’s great to share these experiences and take along a friend. This time, a teacher who had asked her teenage Chinese students about the opera accompanied me. The response wasn’t good—one describing it as ‘horrible’, and a more diplomatic boy said he lived with grandparents who watched a lot of Chinese opera on DVD, so knew it well. When asked if he’d watched any after moving to boarding school, he emphatically shook his head. Now laden with prejudices but little more education, we went, hoping to be enlightened.
During the performance, the troupe's biggest problem is the lack of technical and backstage support and no programmes to inform us. With most of the audience utterly confused, the narratives and subtitles sped past at indigestible speed, proceeding to shrink throughout the show.
Putting such problems aside, the performers themselves delivered a flawless show consisting of short, one act stories. All of the performers have trained from a young age in acrobatics, singing and gesture, and are then assigned a type of role, (Sheng, Dan, Jing or Chou). The acting is extremely stylized, with performers trained to imbue beauty into every movement. The acts vary from fairly static morality plays to beautiful dance numbers and flamboyant fight sequences.
The orchestra delivers intricate rhythms entwined with repeated percussive fragments. The timbral world is totally unlike that of European opera, I couldn’t have named one of the instruments at sight.
The lead melodic instrument (Jing Hu) is a small, high-pitched, two-string fiddle, accompanied by a plucked lute (Yue Qin). The rest of the ensemble is entirely percussive, which means emphasis is not on percussion as accompaniment to the tune but integral.
The two styles of music are distinct: an upbeat Xipi to represent extreme moods of happiness / anger / agitation and the slower Er Huang. Unfortunately, the heavy amplification of the orchestra makes the Xipi sections quite uncomfortable as the sound could have filled a theatre four times the size.
The Xipi sections have a carnivalesque feel, contributed to by the bright, glittering costumes. The sparse stage allows the elaborate costumes and elaborate make-up to be exhibited as works of art. There are rich colours with oodles of gold thread, exaggerated painted faces and beards hanging to the waist. Particularly striking are the rainbow scarf sleeves of the second act, the scarves around three metres long, used to dazzling effect. Most similar to a rhythmic gymnast, the performer flung, spiraled and twisted the pair of scarves whilst singing.
The lack of programmes was most damaging, as Chinese Opera is an art form that relies heavily on symbolism and communicates in a cultural language that is unknown to the average western audience member. This could have been rectified with some background information, but instead meant the performance remained largely a spectacle, unable to connect across the culture barrier. The art form is subject to declining audience members in China itself since the 80s, attributed to the influence of western culture making people impatient with the slower-paced opera form.
I walked away feeling no more enlightened, but inspired to do a lot more research, and a starting point from which to explore this centuries-old tradition. Would I visit again? The curious side of me wants to explore further into the bizarre and beautiful art form, but only if next time the performers are supported by competent production team to help me on my way.
Reviewer: Louise Lewis