(Production details to be added – programme in Chinese)
Over the years, I’ve seen many jingju extracts, at the Lao She Teahouse, in tourist shows, on television, at a piao you, and under the trees on Thousand Buddha Mountain during the May Day holiday. I’ve never seen a live performance of a full-length opera though, so when the opportunity came up to see a local performance whilst attending the Shanghai Theatre Academy’s Winter Institute 2012, I eagerly took it. The opera, The Mirror of Fortune, follows the fate of Lady XXX, whose fourteen month pregnancy is so long that her husband’s concubine convinces her master that his wife is bearing a monster and hatches a plot to poison her mistress. Lady XXX’s plucky and loyal maid overhears this plan and helps her mistress escape into the mountains, where the lady gives birth to a beautiful boy-child. While the maid is away looking for food, an evil local landlord (?) passes by, abducts Lady XXX to be his concubine, and discards her baby at the side of the road. His wife is having no such nonsense, however, comically chastises her husband, pays off Lady XXX and lets her go. Lady XXX is happily reunited with her maid, who has returned with food, until both realises that neither has the baby. After a desperate and futile search, Lady XXX falls into a state of madness. Meanwhile, her baby boy has been saved by a passing general (judge?), who takes him home. After some time, Lady XXX’s maid brings her mistress to his house for shelter, they all realise that this is the mother of the lost child (?), so the general gives the maid money for the treatment of her mistress, and offers to raise the baby as his son. Seventeen years pass. The baby is now a young man. The maid brings her mistress to the court to claim justice, Lady XXX is reunited with her son, thanks to a piece of identifying jewellery, and the plot of the evil concubine is exposed. Lady XXX’s husband is unduped, and it all ends happily.
Beijing Opera is highly codified and anti-realist. For me as a British viewer, the comparison is with Christmas pantomime. This is partly because of Chinois Aladdin, of course, but also because of jingju’s clown characters, the cross-dressed ‘dame’, the direct audience address, and the spectacle. Jingju, although now an acquired taste, was for many years popular entertainment. However, it is powerful entertainment, combining comedy with threat, and even the suggestion of potential tragedy. The mad grief of Lady XXX was particularly emotionally effecting in this contect. This play, in particular, also has parallels with Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, and despite elements which Brecht (mis?)identified as V-effects, it draws in the audience emotionally, particularly if you are familiarised with these techniques. The high-pitched voices of the young female characters no longer make me laugh – they simply indicate their gender and project across a noisy room. (Chinese jingju audiences do not sit quietly.) An old woman speaks and sings in a more natural voice. It is interesting to note, however, that these ‘feminine’ traits were developed by male performers before women were accepted on the professional stage. Because jingju audiences are so familiar with the stories and the styles of the shows, there seems to be a collaborative contract between them and the performers. When the lead dan steps on stage, she is applauded before she has done anything, in anticipation of her performance. When she begins, for example, a well-known step to introduce a dance or song, she is again applauded. If she does it well, there will be shouts and cheers. At the end of the show, the audience cluster around the stage, shouting out approval.
The set comprised of a variety of boxes, or sometimes a table an two chairs, covered in different coloured silks and usually arranged centrally. In the opening and ending scenes there was also a decorative screen – perhaps a later innovation? A pale blue cotton curtain was also drawn across the stage to indicate scene changes or the passage of time, perhaps another influence of huaju, spoken theatre. The theatre was a proscenium arch. However, sense of place was mostly indicated by props and actions. The maid was obviously in the house when she came in carrying a cup on a tray. She was outside when she carried a small bag, and her mistress wore a scarf over her elaborate headdress. Lost on the mountainside, the hardship and danger of the women’s journey was conveyed to the audience by the way they mimed crossing a river on imaginary stepping stones.
Jingju, although translated as Beijing Opera, is not opera in the Western sense. Li Ruru had described it more accurately as ‘total theatre’, I think, or perhaps we can think of a musical. Characters speak through recitation, but expand on emotions or situations through songs, which are known in their own right outside of the opera performance. Thus, my friend Zhou Yan, who has not seen a full-length opera, can tell me the meanings of the songs at a piao you, and their contexts. [Zhou Yan is highly educated, an intellectual, but theatre going is alien to her. After we attended LZH’s The Master Builder, she told me that the last time she went to the theatre she was about three or four. ‘I can’t remember the play, but it was the end of the Cultural Revolution. I remember that the theatre company borrowed our chairs for the production. I was so excited to see our wooden chairs on the stage! We lived in the North East, and many locals were not Han. I’m not sure if many people went to the theatre in those days. We didn’t have televisions, so maybe. Were we a typical family? I don’t know. I suppose my father must have been friends with the actors, otherwise why would we have leant them our chairs? Perhaps that’s why we went.’] Dancing and acrobatics (or a combination of the two) are also integral.
Costume also indicate role. A handkerchief is female, although a man can be male. Thus the ‘dame’ character, the landlord’s wife, played by a middle-aged man, clutched hers as did the evil concubine. The good judge (general) had a grey beard early in the performance, but after the seventeen years had passed, he changed it to a white one (some things are universal!) The doll-baby’s cry was played by a reed pipe (a Biba?), and his youth was later indicated by the way the male actor kept changing, mid sentence, from a woman’s voice to a man’s (jokes about voices breaking also cross continents!). When Lady XXX lost her mind, she lost her headdress, her hair became loosened, and her posture collapsed, like a puppet whose master has let go of the strings. At the moment she realised her loss, the stage fell totally silent – the orchestra stopped, she sang, but soundlessly, and mimed out her words as if signing.
The dan, Lady XXX was clearly the central role in this opera, and the relationship between her and her maid was phenomenal in terms of performance. As Lady XXX danced her madness, each movement was complimented by a reaction from the maid, in a complex choreography that conveyed Lady XXX emotional isolation, the maid’s determined companionship and care.
As in the Taiwan Banzi demonstration (BSA conference, London, 2009) the long sleeves of Lady XXX’s costume took on animated dimensions as they became an extension of her state of mind, whirled about as if in a gymnastic ribbon dance.