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!

Lü Bu Always Rings Twice (Updated)

I have translated and subtitled another pair of three more videos in honor of the upcoming Lincoln Center Festival presentation of Guo Wenjing’s new opera “Feng Yi Ting (The Phoenix Pavilion)”.

Guo’s opera is quite unusual in that it pairs together singers from different traditions in China.  In our previous posts, we took a look at the role of the hero-patsy Lü Bu as he was represented in the Beijing opera scene “The Small Reception.”  Today we’ll watch and listen to Diao Chan, the irresistible temptress, as she has been portrayed on the Sichuanese stage.

In “The Little Reception”, Diao Chan might at first glance seem like just another pretty face.  Yes, she is charming – but there are few opportunities for the actress playing her to suggest the character’s feline intelligence or depth of emotion.    Things are different in the Sichuanese opera version of “The Phoenix Pavilion” (Fèng Yí Tíng, 凤仪亭): in Chengdu and Chongqing, at least, our heroine is given some monologues to reveal the woman behind the mask.

The two selections represent different strands of the Sichuanese tradition.  Our first video features Shen Lihong(沈丽红)performing in the full-throated “High-singing” (Gāoqiāng, 高腔) style.   We heard this Gāoqiāng style a few days ago, in Shen Tiemei’s “Thinking of Worldly Pleasures” – it’s gutsy music that seems to capture the full measure of Diao Chan’s secret passions.    Diao Chan recites the catalogue of woes that have befallen her country – the helpless emperor, the hapless courtiers, and the impoverished populace, the vicious minister Dong Zhuo and his general-son Lü Bu.  Diao Chan recounts the elements of the “Bracelet Stratagem” – the flirtation by turns with father and son until hostility all but breaks out between the two.  By the aria’s end, Diao Chan is no longer a coy maiden.  Filled with her sense of mission, she has been transformed into an avenging goddess.  It’s a pretty thrilling performance.

Our second selection features Shen Tiemei, who will be appearing in New York later this month.  In this introductory aria, Diao Chan dallies in the gardens behind Dong Zhuo’s mansion.  For several weeks, she has been living with him as his mistress.  Lü Bu, consumed with jealousy, skulks about the manor every day hoping to catch glimpses of her.  Whenever Diao Chan catches the young general spying on her, she always pretends to be desperately unhappy in her union with Dong Zhuo.  At the Phoenix Pavilion in the gardens, she finally makes herself available, hoping to provoke Lü Bu into betraying and murdering his adoptive father Dong Zhuo.

Perhaps because this selection was taken from a TV variety show, it has a rather unusual string quartet accompaniment.    Many Sichuanese opera films – and some live performances – feature decent-sized orchestras, but this arrangement stands out for its unexpectedly Bartókian flavor.  It’s as though our femme fatale, Diao Chan, has stepped out of a (garishly colorized) film noir – like Barbara Stanwyck waiting to make mincemeat of Fred MacMurray Lü Bu.

Update: Aha, I’ve run across another video of Shen Tiemei performing the same aria in the more traditional “High-singing” (Gāoqiāng, 高腔) style.  And there’s an encore!  Shen performs another short aria from the same opera, whose contents might be summed up as: “I feel pretty, Oh so pretty!”

Tiger Trap / Honey Trap

As promised, another in the series of posts dedicated to the upcoming Lincoln Center Festival performance of Guo Wenjing’s new opera “The Phoenix Pavilion” (Fèng Yí Tíng, 凤仪亭).   Previously (here and here), we watched Shen Tiemei, the Chongqing star of Sichuanese opera, in a pair of contrasting roles.  Today we’ll take a look at her partner: the Beijing opera singer of young man (xiǎoshēng, 小生) roles, Jiang Qihu (江其虎).

“The Small Reception” and “The Phoenix Pavilion” are episodes from a larger drama usually known as “Lü Bu and Diao Chan” or “The Bracelet Stratagem”.   The story is taken from Chapter 8 of the Three Kingdoms Saga.  (By now, readers of this blog may be convinced that there isn’t a single one of The Three Kingdom’s 125 chapters that hasn’t been set multiple times as an opera.)

The evil warlord Dong Zhuo has installed a puppet on the imperial throne and has himself assumed the post of Prime Minister.    His rule is opposed by, among others, the three sworn brothers of the Peach Garden: Liu Bei (Liu Xuande), Lord Guan (Guan Yu or Guan Yunchang) and Zhang Fei (Zhang Yide).   Dong Zhuo has at his side his adopted son, the youthful warrior Lü Bu (also known as Lord Wen and Lü Fengxian).   The two factions fought at Tiger Trap Pass, where Lü Bu found himself overmatched by the three brothers.

Though Dong Zhuo suffered a setback at Tiger Trap Pass, he still sat secure in his ministerial post.  To fill the coffers emptied by his failed campaigns, Dong Zhuo plundered not only the living, but the dead:

“On Dong Zhuo’s orders, Lü Bu dug up the crypts of former emperors and empresses and looted their treasures.  Dong Zhuo’s soldiers despoiled the tombs of officials and civilians alike and loaded the gold and jewels, silks, and other valuables onto several thousand carts”

(translation by Moss Roberts)

Appalled by Dong Zhuo’s rule, the righteous Interior Minister Wang Yun devised a clever trap for both of his foes.   Wang Yun had raised from an early age a young singing- and dancing-girl that he practically considered his daughter.   Her name was Diao Chan, and her beauty and talents compared with the finest ever seen among China’s women (she is reckoned one of the Four Great Beauties of Chinese history).

For his “Bracelet Stratagem”,  Wang Yun asked Diao Chan to use all of her feminine cunning to enchant and conquer both Lü Bu and Dong Zhuo.   Father and son were soon at loggerheads over the beautiful maiden, and Wang Yun was canny enough to exploit the rift between them.    In the end, the Interior Minister persuaded Lü Bu to assassinate his adopted father, the Prime Minister.  For the first stage of this honey trap, Wang Yun hosted a small reception for Lü Bu, allowing him not only a glimpse of Diao Chan, but some “private time” with her as well.  This is the scene dramatized in the videos below.

The young heroes in Chinese opera can differ strikingly from the virtuous and stalwart figures of Western opera.  In Beijing opera, martial young men are as likely to be anti-heroes, undone by their own flaws.  Their ambiguity is well expressed by their difficult vocal style: a mixture of natural voice and falsetto which, while often thrilling and impressive, can also betray signs of immaturity, arrogance, and inexperience.  (In the Beijing opera tradition, it is usually older men (lǎoshēng, 老生) who combine wisdom and intelligence with righteousness. )  Though Lü Bu is no mean warrior, he has immense pride and does not seem especially bright – Wang Yun and Diao Chan manipulate him easily.  He is not even a particularly honorable character – when he entertains Wang Yun and Diao Chan with stories of his exploits at Tiger Trap Pass, he doesn’t tell them that he ultimately ran away in defeat!   (As in other forms of drama, one often has to read between the lines in Chinese opera to pick up the psychological nuances.)

Still,  Lü Bu is difficult to dislike altogether.  His mixture of virility and vanity, charm and naivité,  by turns attract and repel the viewer.

I have subtitled two different versions of “The Small Reception”.  First, we have a performance from Shanghai’s Beijing Opera Troupe starring Song Xiaochuan.  Song Xiaochuan is not only a first-class divo of the treacherous young-man roles, he is also well known in China for his early friendship with the Hong Kong pop and film megastar, Leslie Cheung (Song assisted Cheung in the actor’s preparation for the film “Farewell My Concubine” and also served as his make-up coach.)

Following this video is another, shorter version of the same scene starring Jiang Qihu, who will be appearing in New York later this month.  Jiang is a member of the Premiere Company of the National Beijing Opera Troupe.  Even with the terrible quality of the video (the best I could find – sorry!) his sterling vocal qualities are apparent. (NB: I have not subtitled the dialogue in the second video – it is the same as in Song Xiaochuan’s version.  The sung portions alone have subtitles.)

Song Xiaochuan as Lü Bu (fully subtitled)

Jiang Qihu as Lü Bu (partially subtitled)

Shen Tiemei, “Offering for Guan Yu”

I, like a river,
Have been turned aside by this harsh age.
I am a substitute. My life has flowed
Into another channel

– Anna Akhmatova

Time for another video featuring the artistry of Shen Tiemei (沈铁梅), the Sichuanese opera star from Chongqing who will appearing at the Lincoln Center Festival at the end of July in Guo Wenjing’s opera “Feng Yi Ting”.   Previously, we saw her do a humorous turn as a sex-starved nun uncowed by prospects of hellish torments.   Turning from comedy to tragedy, we’ll watch her play the role of Lady Sun (Sūn Shàngxiāng, 孙尚香) in the scene, “Offering for Guan Yu”, (祭关羽) from the Sichuan opera “Three Offerings at the Riverside“ (三祭江)。

The story for this opera, like so many in the Chinese repertoire, is taken from the Three Kingdoms Saga.  Lady Sun is the beautiful and fierce sister of the King of the Southlands, Sun Quan.   She is a tough cookie  – skilled at swordplay and with a posse of warrior maids.   (Nowadays, this riot grrrl is a popular figure in anime and video games.)  To cement a military alliance, Sun Quan gave his sister in marriage to a claimant to the imperial throne, the duke and warlord Liu Bei.     Both the military and marital union failed.  Breaking her marriage vow to Liu Bei,  Lady Sun returned to the Southlands when relations between the two warlords soured.    The warriors Zhang Fei and Zhao Zilong prevented her from taking Liu Shan, her son with Liu Bei, with her.

The Sichuanese opera “Three Offerings at the Riverside”,  is set in the Southlands Empire after Lady Sun has left Liu Bei.  “Offering For Guan Yu” is the second of the three.  Red-faced Guan Yu was one of Liu Bei’s most trusted and most accomplished generals.   In later centuries, Lord Guan was revered as a deity.  His cult was especially popular during the Qing dynasty, and temples devoted to him keep busy to this day.

Lord Guan met his death at the hands of the Southlands general, Lü Meng.   Sun Quan was at first inclined to be merciful with prisoner, but was convinced by his advisors to have Lord Guan executed.  Transformed into a spirit, Guan wrought a terrible revenge on his enemy:

“Sun Quan personally poured out wine and presented it to Lü Meng.

Lü Meng received it and was about to drink, when he dashed the cup to the ground and instead seized Sun Quan with one hand.  “Green-eyed scamp!” he screamed. “Red-whiskered rodent!  Have you forgotten me?  Or not?”  The assemblage looked aghast.  Everyone moved to rescue Sun Quan, but Meng knocked him to the ground, strode to his throne, and seated himself upon it.  Meng’s eyebrows arched, his eyes grew round and prominent as he bellowed, “I have crisscrossed the empire for thirty-odd years since defeating the Yellow Scarves, only to have your treacherous trap sprung on me.  But if I have failed to taste your flesh in life, Lü Meng, I shall give your soul no peace in death – for I am Guan Yunchang, lord of Hanshou precinct!”

Fear-stricken, Sun Quan led the assemblage in offering obeisance.  But lo!  Lü Meng collapsed on the ground, blood ran out of his orifices, and he died… Thereafter Sun Quan was tormented with anxiety over the execution of Lord Guan.”

(translation by Moss Roberts)

Lady Sun secretly steals away to the river side to offer sacrifices to the fallen Lord Guan.  As Lord Guan was the sworn brother of her (separated) husband, Lady Sun would be obliged by custom to perform this act of reverence.    But there is, I think, another, unspoken reason why Lady Sun wants to memorialize Lord Guan.   As she speaks, we might guess that  the mighty general’s example is weighing heavily on her mind.

Her oration concisely summarizes an early episode from Lord Guan’s career (described in Chapters 25-27 of  Luo Guanzhong’s Three Kingdoms Saga):    Lord Guan, having sworn brotherhood with Liu Bei, is captured by the evil minister Cao Cao.  Thinking Liu Bei dead, Lord Guan agrees to serve Cao Cao as custom demands.   Minister Cao tried mightily to win the affections of his new general, showering him with gold, fine robes and fine women.  But when news reaches Lord Guan that Liu Bei still lives, the general tried to gain audience with Cao Cao to officially take leave from him.   Crafty Cao Cao kept trying to put off Lord Guan  by hanging “OUT FOR LUNCH” signs outside his council doors.    Eventually, Lord Guan got fed up and left Cao’s camp, resigned his position, and supended his seal of office from the rafters of the entry hall.  Lord Guan took with him Liu Bei’s two wives, captive since Liu Bei’s defeat at Xuzhou.  After encounters with friend and foe, Guan and his two charges were once again reunited with Liu Bei.

Reading between the lines, we can guess why Lady Sun should choose this story to commemorate Lord Guan’s life.  Guan Yu’s fidelity to Liu Bei, even in the face of Cao Cao’s luxurious gifts and fulsome blandishments, serves to underscore Lady Sun’s own betrayal of her husband.   Lady Sun doesn’t declare her own remorse to the audience.    But her guilt is nonetheless palpable to the audience that knows her story.  After her third and final offering by the river, made upon receiving news of Liu Bei’s death,  Lady Sun drowns herself in its swift currents.