Hey – do you remember last week’s post on Beijing opera and poetry? (Hint: it’s here.) I ask because the information there is useful in picking out some interesting details from yesterday’s video “The Small Reception“. Got it?
Now that you’re back, this is Lü Bu’s introductory speech, or yǐnzi (引子). Yǐnzi are short, introductory poems of 2 to 4 lines which set forth some fundamental aspect of the character, mood, or situation. They’ve been a feature of Chinese opera since the 13th century. Here are Lü Bu’s opening words:
Before Tiger Trap Pass, my fame shook the earth,
Assisting my father, the Prime Minister, I am the bureaucrats’ boss.
Wang, Minister of the Interior, rewarded me with a golden crown,
In a spare moment, I have come to the manor to give thanks for such kindness.
As we have seen, poems in Beijing opera nearly always fall into complementary pairs of lines. In this quatrain we have two such pairs. Musically, lines one and three end with incomplete, open cadences. They are answered by full musical cadences at the ends of lines two and four. Lines two and three are linked conceptually, like a classic Tang-era jueju – Lü Bu is describing honors bestowed upon him. All in all, it is a concise quatrain which also gives us a lot of useful backstory. But watch what happens in performance:
There is a nearly minute-long break between lines 3 and 4, while Lü Bu and Wang Yun go through some stage business and exchange greetings. When Lü Bu finally delivers the last line of his speech, he is no longer addressing the audience but instead speaking with Wang Yun.
At some point in the past, I suspect, this opening scene was performed differently. Lü Bu would have approached the center of the stage, delivered his four lines of introduction to the audience, and only then entered Wang Yun’s house. The current manner of performing these lines represent a refinement to the older tradition – instead of neatly separating “aria” from action, the music and drama are allowed to smoothly dovetail into one another. By the time the “aria” has finished, the conversation between Lü Bu and Wang Yun is already underway.
This pattern is repeated a number of times in “The Small Reception”. Here is Diao Chan’s opening speech:
With dainty step and supple gait, I leave the ladies’ chambers,
Entering the grand hall, I bear the bait within my breast.
Shy and silent, this frail maid seems a fragile figure,
With proper ceremony, I stand to one side.
Another neat quatrain (lines two and three are joined conceptually by references to Diao Chan’s cunning plan) is once again interrupted before the final line is sung. Diao Chan enters the hall where Lü Bu and Wang Yun sit. She directs her final line half to them, half to the audience.
Later on in the scene Lü Bu proposes a toast to the assembled company:
I feel deeply, Minister, your kind affections,
Let us enjoy this young lady’s fine graces.
Let us raise our cups and drink our fill,
Let us becloud our thoughts and quicken our hearts.
Lü Bu, intoxicated in equal measure by the wine and Diao Chan, becomes increasingly unsteady while singing his third line. His voice trails off and eventually he loses his train of thought altogether. Only after Wang Yun’s gentle reproach does Lü Bu snap out of it and sing his final line, observing all the necessary social (and musical) proprieties.
Diao Chan, setting the honey trap, acts as though she is equally smitten with him.
Lord Wen’s name is praised all over
Even in the women’s quarters, one hears of the court’s great admiration for him.
I am so filled with emotion that it is difficult to speak,
With blushing cheeks, I smile silenty.
Clever Diao Chan imitates Lü Bu’s stupefied speechlessness. Her demure silence after her third line is enough to leave Lü Bu smitten. Again, it is up to Wang Yun to, gently but firmly, bring this lovey-dovey business to a halt.
This pattern of interrupted conclusions occurs a couple of more times in the final scene, during Lü Bu and Diao Chan’s declarations of love. Before he finishes his final line, Lü Bu falls on bended knee to swear he would die for her. Diao Chan’s interrupts her couple to allow some stage business (her co-conspirator Wang Yun sneaks onto the scene to “catch” the lovers) before she, too, throws herself to the ground to offer her oath of fidelity to Lü Bu.
Not every Beijing opera relies so heavily on quatrains like these, and not every one of them makes such a point out of interrupting them before they finish. But the short arias of “The Small Reception” provide excellent examples of how Beijing opera can blend poetry, music, drama and gesture into a single Gesamtkunstwerk.