The Consolations of Geography

gudaiditu

There hasn’t been much new on the front page of Nine Dragon Spot recently, but there has been something rather interesting going on behind the scenes. A few friends and I have been compiling the “Chinese Opera Directory” – a guide that strives towards complete coverage of Chinese opera troupes, venues and museums around the world. A link to the Chinese Opera Directory should be on the menu bar at the top of your screen. Or press here. Try it. I’ll wait….

…back? Good.

If you’re in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia or Thailand and would like to see some opera, the Chinese Opera Directory will help you identify local venues and troupes. If you live in the U.S., Canada or Australia, you can also find information about amateur groups performing in your area. And if you enjoy armchair travel, the Chinese Opera Directory (in conjunction with youtube, youku, tudou, and other video sites) can be your guide to the hundreds of troupes and styles found in East Asia today.

This is not a small undertaking – there is a lot of information to collect, and it is frequently difficult to find. Mainland China itself has 33 provinces, subdivided into over 300 prefects, and further subdivided into nearly 3,000 counties. Most of those counties will have at least one professional or amateur troupe, and of course the big cities will have many more. So far as I know, there isn’t a comprehensive directory of opera troupes even in Chinese. The electronic infrastructure in China is still poorly adapted to arts marketing: only the very biggest troupes have any kind of web presence. Most rely on local networks of opera lovers, communicating by word-of-mouth, posters or Weibo/10-cent to advertise upcoming performances. Every year some troupes disappear or are consolidated or are re-named. As of June 12, 2013, I’d say that the Chinese Opera Directory is only about 3 percent complete.

But even an incomplete Chinese Opera Directory has its uses. Many of the main stages and troupes in Beijing, Shanghai and Suzhou are listed. There is extensive coverage of Taiwanese theaters and troupes. A Thai colleague submitted the names of dozens of Chaozhou opera groups working in that country. An American friend, the Cleveland-area musician David Badagnani, has a long list of amateur groups working in the U.S.

The coverage of Shaanxi 陕西 province perhaps best represents the aspirations of this Directory. Shaanxi province is home to an astonishing variety of opera styles. Some of them no longer have professional troupes at all, some of them are only performed professionally in one place. Even the most widespread form of Chinese opera in Shaanxi – Qinqiang 秦腔 – is virtually unknown in the U.S. and Europe. For this portion of the directory, I’ve made a special effort to point readers in the direction of these unusual and “endangered” opera styles. There are many reasons to emphasize and support the cultural diversity of the Chinese opera tradition. They are interesting in and of themselves. They sometimes best reflect the particularities of the local culture. Some rural forms of opera retain musical styles and theatrical practices abandoned by commercial and official reforms of the twentieth-century.

But many of these rare forms of Chinese opera are in danger of either disappearing forever or having their character changed beyond recognition because of government or market reforms.

Consider the following, rather melancholy example: after Qinqiang, one of the most popular forms of opera in Shaanxi is Han Opera 汉剧, often referred to by its lengthy full name Handiao Erhuang 汉调二黄. Over the centuries, Han Opera developed four main branches in Shaanxi province, in Ankang, Guanzhong, Hanzhong, and Shangluo. Today, Han Opera has all about vanished from Hanzhong – an important part of this tradition has in recent decades been wiped out. This crude video of a TV broadcast appears to be the only extant documentation of Hanzhong-style Han Opera:

The Chinese blog “The Snow Leaves the Mountains Without Intent” 无心雪出岫 describes both the video and the fate of Handiao Erhuang in his region:
“Here is a video clip of the Hanzhong Experimental Opera Troupe (formerly the Hanzhong Han Opera Troupe) performing the scene “Second Ascent” 重台 from the opera “Second Plum” 二度梅). At the moment, this video clip is the only one on the internet which allows one to see Hanzhong-style Handiao Erhuang. It is not much to look at, but it is all the more precious.

In the video are two old singers, each about 70 years of age. The Handiao Erhuang singer Wu Yumei plays the role of Chen Xiangyuan. In the 80s, she served as the vice-president of the Shaanxi Province Han Opera Art Association. Teacher Wu’s singing possessed a lingering delicacy and lasting charm, ending phrases neatly and with great finesse. Her voice was bright and beautiful, loud and strong. The actor playing the role of Mei Liangyu gives full voice to his character’s impatience, depression and resentment. Unfortunately, his name can’t be clearly seen – it appears to be Hu. There are a few phrases which disappear altogether, though it’s not clear whether this is the fault of the singing or of the microphone.

It is said that before the Cultural Revolution, the Hanzhong Experimental Opera Troupe was called the Hanzhong Han Opera Troupe. Before that, in the early years of the Chinese Republic, it was called the Pingmin Erhuang Study Society, and before that it was the Tianhan Troupe of Xiangshui Temple in Nanzheng County. The local government has neglected it for years, the relevant departments ignored it, the troupe’s performers grew old, for many years they did not cultivate a new generation of actors, so that this old tradition of drama from prosperous Hanzhong, passed down for hundreds of years, has gradually faded from view. Now it has, for all intents and purposes, fallen into oblivion.

In 2011, during the height of cultural reform in Hanzhong, the Hanzhong Experimental Opera Troupe, the Hanzhong Beijing Opera Troupe and the Hanzhong Qinqiang Opera Troupes were merged to form the Tianhan Cultural Corporation. They were mostly left to fend for themselves in the marketplace. A very curious idea: to combine the Qinqiang, Beijing and Han Opera troupes, with their different repertoire and their different characteristics. How could they possibly collaborate together on an opera? The most unbearably regrettable part of this is that Han Opera ought to be the form of opera most in accord with the particularities of the local culture. Compare Handiao Erhuang with another form of Han Opera, Handiao Guangguang Qiang (i.e. Nanzheng County Western-style Handiao Guangguang). When the characters speak, Handiao Guangguang sounds like Han Opera – but when they sing, the accent and rhymes are like those of Qinqiang. Handiao Erhuang, by contrast, is spoken and sung in true Han tones.

Perhaps at bottom Handiao Erhuang was decrepit, and the local culture was too weak, so that they easily accepted influences imposed administratively from outside. By now, the rough and crude Qinqiang has a firm place in the local market, while the beautifully undulating Han Opera has been forgotten in Hanzhong. I recall that in my hometown in Mian County, the performances at temple fairs and on holidays were already all done by Qinqiang troupes. From what I understand, since the 50s government cadres in the Hanzhong jurisdiction (including Mian, Hantai, Lüeyang, Chenggu and Xixing) created more and more Qinqiang troupes…”

Over the next few weeks, I’ll post more items about local opera in Shaanxi. Though the last hundred years has witnessed a great “fury of disappearance”, there is still a great deal of interesting and unusual opera cultivated in various parts of the province. Knowing how to find them is an important first step.

A New Year’s Pasticcio

Happy Year of the Snake! This performance was a non-stop delight for me, so I thought I would share it with all of you.

A “box-locking play”  (封箱戏) is the Chinese equivalent of Western opera’s “New Year’s Gala”.  The term refers to the tradition among Chinese opera companies of marking the year’s end by putting all their theatrical costumes away in their storage boxes – only for the boxes to be reopened days later to celebrate the New Year.  A box-locking play is a chance for a company to let its hair down:  old classics are rewritten, new comic material can be inserted, the audiences can be surprised by celebrities making “special guest appearances”.

While this 2003 performance of “Stealing the Spirit Bell” is technically not a box-locking play, it is nevertheless very much in the spirit of one.    The versatile Du Zhenjie (杜镇杰) and Hou Danmei (侯丹梅) each give tour-de-force performances in their unexpected take on this episode from the Chinese epic “Journey to the West”.

In the Tang dynasty, the Emperor has dispatched a contingent of unlikely heroes to the Western Heaven (India/Tibet) to collect Buddhist scriptures and bring them back to the Chinese capital .   Leading the group is the pious Tang Seng, also known as the Tang Priest.  The irascible Monkey King Sun Wukong uses wit, martial prowess and magic tricks to help defeat the many monsters, demons, and ne’er-do-wells who block their path.  There is also the hulking Sha Wujing, who is earnest but not very bright.  The fourth member of this group is the entertaining Pig, Zhu Bajie.  While Pig is a capable fighter (he wields a mean rake), he is a creature of appetites, by nature a bit indolent, and occasionally a bit gullible.

In this story, the Pig Zhu Bajie has been sent ahead to scout out Tiger Camel Peak.  Word has reached the Tang Priest that the Green Lion Demon is there just waiting to eat him.   The Green Lion Demon is a Taoist ascetic who has lived in a cave for thousands of years and learned more than a few magic tricks.  The Green Lion Demon changes himself into a shapely woman (here called the Golden Bell Immortal) to lure the travelers to their doom.  As her name suggests, The Golden Bell Immortal has a special treasure: a magic bell capable of immobilizing its victims.

When we first meet Pig, two things are immediately clear: 1) he is fond of Beijing opera and 2) he enjoys a rich fantasy life.   In this performance, Zhu Bajie does not sing the first couple of arias of the traditional “Stealing the Spirit Bell” libretto.  Instead, the Pig sings patchworks of quotations from other Beijing operas.  Each quotation, in some way appropriate to Zhu Bajie’s mission, also gives the Pig a chance to do a little play-acting.  The Pig, it seems, is a ham.

This type of poetic pastiche, though common in older, Ming dynasty plays and novels, is not often seen in Beijing opera.    The singer Du Zhenjie really wracked his brains ransacking the treasure-trove of traditional old-man arias to find material appropriate for the first couple of musical sequences.  (As Lionel Barrymoore is reported to have said on his deathbed: “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.”)

The charismatic Du Zhenjie is a leading star of old-man roles in Beijing opera – one of the “Nine Headliners” of Beijing’s premiere Opera Company.   In 2005, he was awarded a prestigious “Plum Blossom” prize.   Du’s dominating presence on the Beijing opera scene was confirmed again in 2012 by his “Best Opera Actor” prize at the 2012 Huading “Asian Performance Celebrity Satisfaction Survey” Awards in Beijing。  (The award ceremony at that event was something of a hoot in its own right…)   Du Zhenjie is also an avid practitioner of the art of calligraphy – his website contains many attractive examples of his handiwork.

Du’s partner in this opera is the energetic Hou Danmei, currently the head of the Guizhou Beijing Opera Troupe in her native city of Guiyang.   Skilled in both martial and sentimental roles, Hou’s artistry is helping to spread the popularity of Beijing opera in China’s southwestern provinces.   Hou has a Plum Blossom award herself, given to her in 1992.  (And attention New Yorkers: Hou has spoken of her dream of being the first to bring Beijing opera to Broadway, with a new production of “The Legend of the White Snake”.)

There is a good deal more to say about these entertaining performances – but I don’t want to include any spoilers.   Pour yourself a glass of your favorite beverage and have fun. 蛇年大吉,万事如意!

Exit the Dragon

The Chinese New Year is fast approaching, so to ring out the old Year of the Dragon, I’ve decided to subtitle the classic Beijing opera “The Wandering Dragon Toys with the Phoenix” (Yóu Lóng Xì Fèng, 游龙戏凤) , also known as “Meilong Garrison” (Méi Lóng Zhèn, 梅龙镇).*

The story is set around the year 1517.  The Ming Emperor Zhengde has left the capital incognito to survey life on the Northwestern frontier, where skirmishes with Mongols were a regular occurrence.  Arriving at Meilong Garrison, Zhengde enters an inn run by a young brother and sister.  Zhengde, in disguise as an army captain, orders the brother to keep the night watch.  The Emperor, who doesn’t mind taking his pleasures where he finds them, is quite smitten with the inn’s proprietress, the pert Li Fengjie (Plum Phoenix-Sister).   Nor is she immune to his charms.  A game of erotic cat-and-mouse ensues.  In the end, Zhengde reveals his imperial dragon robes to the awed Li Fengjie.  He plans to make her his Empress, and she invites “the wandering dragon to sleep in the phoenix nest.”

The real-life Emperor Zhengde (1491-1521) was a good deal more hapless and maladroit than this stage version might suggest.  Even his father, the Emperor Hongzhi, could not overlook the shortcomings in his favorite son: “He is intelligent, but he is still so young and is too fond of ease and pleasure…”  Upon ascending the throne at age 15, Zhengde played hooky from his tutors, handed over his duties to a series of unloved eunuch ministers,  wenched and wined.  His incompetent reign was notable mostly for a never-ending series of rebellions and assassination plots.   He managed to burn down the entire palace complex of the Forbidden City by improperly storing the gunpowder needed for his beloved mock-battles.  As in the opera, Zhengde did enjoy traveling in disguise.  From 1517 onwards he made a few rounds of the northern Shanxi and Shaanxi provinces.  The North seemed to exert a magnetic attraction for him – he preferred living in Mongolian-style yurts to residing in traditional imperial palaces.

So far as I know, the first appearance in print of the play “Meilong Garrison” is found in a c. 1728 collection of seventeen operas “The Tales of the Ancient Cypress Hall” (“古柏堂传奇”) by the scholar-official Tang Ying (唐英, 1682-1756).   Most the plays in this collection are in the very old Zaju (杂剧) style, which dates back to the 12th century.  Both Zaju and Kunqu opera were popular with the Qing court in the 18th century, and Tang Ying’s collection was surely destined for court performance.  Tang Ying likely adapted the story of “Meilong Garrison” from an opera in circulation among the clapper-opera companies of Northern China.

In the mid 19th-century, the ascendant form of opera in the capital was no longer Zaju or even Kunqu, but Beijing opera.  The companies cultivating this young, dynamic style often raided the “classics” in their search for libretti.  Many of the plays from Tang Ying’s “Tales of the Ancient Cypress Hall” were transformed into Beijing operas during this era.  In addition to speeding up the action and enlivening the music, the Beijing-opera version of “Meilong Garrison” also changes the character of the story in one important respect.   In the mid- to late-19th century, the reigning stars of Beijing opera were the actors who played “old men” – beginning with the three worthies (Cheng Changgeng 程长庚, Yu Sansheng余三胜,  Zhang Erkui张二奎) and extending through “the later three worthies” (Tan Xinpei摊鑫培, Wang Guifang汪桂芳, and Sun Juxian孙菊仙).    These “old men” characters elevated the tone of Beijing opera, lending greater dignity and moral seriousness to the high-spirited and occasionally improper proceedings.    It was only natural that the role of Emperor Zhengde should be assumed by one of these leading “old men”.  In the process, the twenty-something sybarite Zhengde was transformed into a much more mature figure.  Watching the Emperor Zhengde on the Beijing-opera stage, we can almost believe he is the capable ruler he proclaims himself to be.   This opera has remained a favorite with actors of “old men” characters, providing them with a rare and welcome opportunity to relax a bit, flirt, and engage in some highly-suggestive banter.

The other star of the show is the perky, nimble “flower-girl” (huādàn, 花旦).   In the last half of the 19th century, these quick-witted, vivacious coquettes were the most popular of the female roles.   In the 20th century, the “huadan” lost her pre-eminence in favor of the more dramatic and sentimental “spring-clothes” women (qīngyīndàn, 青衣旦).  But as Luo Rongzheng’s lively performance demonstrates, the “huadan” is still perfectly capable of holding the stage on her own.

This comic opera contains a lot of puns which were difficult to translate into English.

*Phoenix-Sister has her feathers ruffled when Zhengde sarcastically praises her modest home (“My, oh my, what an enormous room this is.”)  Fengjie demands that he carefully look over her good set-up, 家, which in this case might mean either her home or her person.   In the event, Zhengde’s minute inspections are confined to the latter.

*When Li Fengjie warns Zhengde that he will have to compensate (péi, 赔) her for the damaged table, he changes the subject to drinking companions (péi jiǔ, 陪酒).   There is more than a little double-entendre here as well, since in olden days such “drinking partners” often continued their companionable duties in the bedroom…

*When Zhengde finishes one cup of wine, he smacks his lips and proclaims “干” (gān), which means empty as in “干杯” (gānbēi, “empty your cup!”)  But gān is also the first word of “f*** your mom” as well as the last syllable of “nerve”.  Fengjie hurls both at the emperor, crying out: “motherf***ing nerve” (gānnǐniángde xīngān, 干你娘的心肝).

*The final minutes of the opera have a tricky play on words based on 舅(jiù), which can mean either your mother’s oldest brother or your own brother-in-law.  The pun cannot be translated into English – I could only throw up my hands and cry “Uncle!”.

The beautiful and nimble Luo Rongzheng (Luō Róngzhēng, 罗戎征) sings the role of Li Fengjie.  She currently stars in “huadan”  roles with the Beijing Opera Troupe of Zhejiang.  Already a seasoned actress, Luo undertook additional study in 2011 to refine her craft.  When Luo sang this opera (along with a couple others) last year in Beijing, she told the press: “These roles were taught me by Lǎoshī Liu Changyu (Liú Chángyú, 刘长瑜).  I hope these performances constitute a satisfactory “final exam”.  I had originally studied “Qingyi” roles. I couldn’t even walk a proper circle in the “huadan” style.  Studying with teacher Liu, I thoroughly learned the fundamentals, and I gradually began to understand how the actor’s external appearance allows people to understand the character’s psychology.”

Her partner, Zhang Jianguo (Zhāng Jiànguó, 张建国), is our Emperor Zhengde.  Zhang currently heads the Third Beijing Opera Company of Beijing.  A leading performer on the national stage for more than 20 years, he has been the recipient of many awards, including the coveted Plum Blossom award in 2002.

*This opera also suitable for Valentine’s Day.  It’s a two-fer!

L’Isle Joyeuse

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Hello folks!  After a summer hiatus, Nine Dragon Spot is back on the air with some exciting news: in September and October this blog will be broadcasting from Taipei, Taiwan.

A friend in Taichung asked me: “Is there really that much Chinese opera going on in Taiwan this fall?”  The answer is: “Yes!”.   Direct from Nanjing, the Jiangsu Province Beijing Opera Theater will give daily performances, September 10-15 in Taipei’s Zhongshan Hall.  Their program is much too varied and interesting to be summarized here – I’ll devote a separate post to them in the next few days.  The best of Nanjing will return the next month when the great Jiangsu Province Kunqu Theater performs the drama “A Dream in Vain” (Nán Kē Mèng, 南柯梦) over two nights (October 18-19, repeated October 20-21).   Cross-strait collaboration is the name of the game on the weekend of September 22-23, as Taiwanese and Mainland Chinese performers of Henan (Clapper) Opera (Yùjù, 豫剧)  team up for performances of the newly-edited historical opera “Granny Liu” (Liú Lǎolao, 刘姥姥) and the modern opera “Fragrant Spirit” (Xiānghún Nǚ, 香魂女) .  These shows will also performed earlier in the week in nearby Zhunan (竹南).

Taiwan, of course, has no shortage of its own opera troupes.   Taiwanese opera (Gēzǎixì, 歌仔戏) will be represented on the afternoons of September 15 and 16 by the Sun Hope Taiwanese Opera Troupe (“New Ideas for Taiwanese Opera”) in the operas “The Prince of Shooting Star Sea”(流星嗨王子) and “The Butterfly Dream” (装周蝴蝶梦).    The bright-eyed members of the Ming Hwa Yuan Youth Troupe will take the stage three times from September 21-23.   That same weekend, the Chun Mei Taiwanese Opera Troupe will perform “Prince of the Night” (夜王子).    Taiwan’s Clapper Opera Troupe performs “The Maiden Hua Jia Wu” (花嫁巫娘自) on the evening of September 15.  Taiwan’s Kunju Opera Troupe gives afternoon performances the weekend of September 29-30 of “The Butterfly Dream” (蝴蝶梦) and “Mount Lanke”(烂柯山).   And just to round things out,  the GuoGuang Opera Company will stage the Beijing operas “The Unicorn Purse” (锁麟囊) on September 8 and “The Blossom Field Error” (花田错) on September 15.

And this is all just in September!  October will be equally busy.   When I’m not stuffing my face with Din Tai Fung’s soup-dumplings, the country’s traditional kidney-and-testicle stew, or Taipei’s notorious stinky tofu, I’ll be blogging about the city’s vibrant operatic life.