Lovestruck Nuns in Hell: Shen Tiemei

I’ve been thinking that this blog needed an estrogen boost.  Luckily,  New York’s Lincoln Center Festival is about to give us a good dose..

Noted Chinese composer Guo Wenjing (郭文景) is premiering a new opera,  The Phoenix Pavilion based on a traditional Sichuanese opera of the same name.  Starring as the femme fatale Diao Chan (貂蝉) is the Sichuanese opera star Shen Tiemei (沈铁梅).   The performances run from July 26 through July 28.

Aside from the occasional panda or dish of spicy, dry-fried intestines, Sichuanese culture doesn’t often come to American shores.    For that reason, blog posts this week will be dedicated to the opera’s leading lady as well as traditional versions of the Diao Chan story from Sichuan, Guangdong, Jiangsu and Shaanxi.

We’ll start with one of Shen Tiemei’s signature roles, the young nun pining for freedom in the scene “Thinking of Worldly Pleasures.”  (思凡)   The plot itself requires little explanation – the little nun has been packed off to the convent by her family.   Outside the gates one day, she meets a young man.  Since that time, she hardly knows who she is or what she’s doing.   One thing is certain: this nun would brave hellfire to cozy up with a handsome lad.

In the Chinese movie “Farewell My Concubine”, the old teacher repeats the traditional maxim: “Men fear the opera “Night Flight”, women fear the opera “Thinking of Worldly Pleasures”.  Though this version of the scene Is a bit on the short side, it’s still a bravura piece for a “little lady “ (小旦) or “flower girl” (花旦) performer.    It is a role to made for seducing audiences.  Indeed,  it’s worth recalling that up until the early 20th century, theater companies often had other, offstage, uses for some of their actors.

Shen Tiemei here performs in the High-Singing style of Sichuanese opera (高腔川剧) – vocally exuberant and accompanied only by percussion.  You can practically smell the mountain air in her voice.

8 thoughts on “Lovestruck Nuns in Hell: Shen Tiemei

  1. Thank you for the lipsynched Ye Ben @Parterre, it eluded me so far. I bet Bertrand would be interested in the Fleming discussion above there. As a matter of fact, I liked Clita’s 12:09pm comment, not particularly about Fleming but the “fuss” phenomenon in general, what plays a major role in why I’m not really involved in Western opera and better stick to oratorio singers. Chinese opera, that’s a completely different story! Exactly the opposite. I hope it made some sense, I’m clearly undereducated to discuss stuff like this yet I always do. 😛

    • Heya, Fern: How was Red Cliff??

      Regarding that Night Flight: it’s a great document, but “Night Flight” is no opera for old men. I think the son was 50 or thereabouts when he synched the film, which is ambitious given the difficulty of the role. (As a foonote: it turns out that one or two (I forget) of the Hou granddaughters live here in the Bay Area. For a few years, they were maintaining a school for Kun opera out here. I’ve been meaning to see if they’re still around and whether they’re organizing any activities.)

      Renee Fleming is discussed about as often on Parterre as Zhang Huoding is discussed at Bertrand’s place, though not always with the same degree of unreserved affection.

      • I’ll write a Red Cliff report-back tomorrow, I’m out of town this weekend and only have this mobile phone with me. You know that play is odd, yet it was my best day in this year. I posted a few things @Weibo.

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  3. Hello,

    Fern is ribbing me. Just to set things straight, I am a much bigger Zhang Huoding fan than a Renée Fleming fan.

    Renée Fleming has a superb voice, I saw her live last year. However, her musical choices in the past few years have left me less and less interested. She’s been focusing on 20th Century German composers more and more. Her rock CD was superfluous. She sang at the now extremely controversial Desmarais private party here in Canada:

    Getting back to this post, I like Shen Tiemei’s voice and the music.There sure is a lot of reverb, though. Only The Cramps use more reverb in their music.


    • No ribbing intended, honest!!! I just knew you like her to some extent, and thought you would be interested in the discussion.

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