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！