4 x 4

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:

1. 虎牢关前威名震,

Before Tiger Trap Pass, my fame shook the earth,

2. 辅佐相父辖群臣。

Assisting my father, the Prime Minister, I am the bureaucrats’ boss.

3. 王司徒赠与我金冠一顶,

Wang, Minister of the Interior, rewarded me with a golden crown,

4. 乘闲暇到府上拜谢盛情。

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:

1. 轻移莲步出兰房,

With dainty step and supple gait, I leave the ladies’ chambers,

2. 怀揣香饵到华堂。

Entering the grand hall, I bear the bait within my breast.

3. 含羞不语娇怯样,

Shy and silent, this frail maid seems a fragile figure,

4. 深施一礼站一旁。

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:

1. 深感司徒情意大,

I feel deeply, Minister, your kind affections,

2. 又蒙小姐的美意佳。

Let us enjoy this young lady’s fine graces.

3. 忙将斗酒来饮下,

Let us raise our cups and drink our fill,

4. 神思昏昏心如麻。

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.

1. 温候威名杨天下,

Lord Wen’s name is praised all over

2. 闺中闻听常羡夸。

Even in the women’s quarters, one hears of the court’s great admiration for him.

3. 满腹情思难讲话,

I am so filled with emotion that it is difficult to speak,

4. 两腮红晕无话答。

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.

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.

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.

“The Empty City Stratagem” 2: Patter songs, Beijing-style

Previously, we took a look the most popular number from the Beijing opera “The Empty City Stratagem”: “I am a carefree fellow from Sleeping Dragon Mountain.”  Today, we’ll examine the opera’s second-most-celebrated excerpt, “Standing on the city walls, admiring the mountain scenery.”

Any fan of Italian bel-canto opera will tell you that the heart of the genre, its yin-yang, is the pair of contrasting movements cantabile and cabaletta.  The slow, lyrical, reflective cantabile (“song-like”) is followed by an up-tempo cabaletta (“little couplet”) expressing agitation, exaltation or determination.

While the sequence of tempi and song-types in Beijing opera is more varied than in Italian bel-canto, there is still a marked tendency for long monologues by characters to begin slowly and end quickly.  Sometimes, there is a slow-burn – the musical pace quickens with each successive turn of the plot, like a finale from an opera buffa (the final scene of the modern classic The Unicorn Purse ,锁麟囊, would be one example).  Just as often, there is a neat division between slow and fast arias.  Such is the case with “I am a carefree fellow…” and “Standing on the city walls…”

As we saw last time, the poetry for the slow-tempo aria “I am a carefree fellow” was quite regular – only twice were the 10-syllable lines stretched out to include an extra syllable.  The poetry for the quick-tempo “Standing on the city walls…” , on the other hand, clearly plays fast and loose with the traditional poetic rules.

1-2. 我正在城楼观山景,耳听得城外乱纷纷。

3-4. 旌旗招展空翻影,却原来是司马发来的兵。

5-6. 我也曾差人去打听,打听得司马领兵往西行。

7-8. 一来是马谡无谋少才能,二来是将帅不和失街亭。

9-10. 连得三城多侥幸,贪而无厌你又夺我的西城。







The lengths of the odd-numbered lines vary from 7-10 syllables, with most of them containing 8 syllables.  The lengths of the even-numbered lines vary much more dramatically, from 8 to a tongue-twisting 17 syllables.

This is typical: slow arias tend to feature balanced couplets that are the very model of lyrical propriety, while the verses of fast arias frequently run helter-skelter across the page.  One reason for these different poetic styles can be found in the music of Beijing opera.

Recall that Beijing opera melodies repeat themselves every two lines.  As with the 12-bar-blues, repetition becomes the mother of invention.  Slow arias overcome the musical limitation by varying the tunes: they can be ornamented, shrunk, or developed and stretched to greater length, all while keeping each line’s syllable count relatively fixed.  The caesuras within each line of poetry can be filled with instrumental interludes of greater or shorter length, depending on the dramatic situation.

At a quick tempo, however,  there are fewer opportunities to vary the length of a musical line, so the lines themselves are often of irregular length.  A fast aria sung to a regular succession of 7- or 10-syllable lines would run the risk of producing an unwelcome sing-song effect.  Changing the syllable count produces musical variety.

Looking again at the Chinese text of “Standing on the City Walls…”, we notice that the odd-numbered lines tend to be more regular in length than the even-numbered lines.  Naturally, the music for these couplets reflects this difference.  Each pair of lines begins in a rather stereotyped fashion.  As the couplet progresses, the music accompanying the words becomes more individual, more varied as it approaches a cadence on the final syllable.  The rule of thumb is: odd-numbered lines are usually even, even-numbered lines can be quite odd.

Though the lines in a fast aria can sometimes be spun out to improbable lengths, their internal structure is still derived from the 3-part, 2-caesura division of the line we noted with the slow arias.  Recall that the 10-syllable lines of “I am a carefree fellow from Sleeping Dragon Mountain” were divided into groups of 3+3+4 syllables, with short (or sometimes long) pauses between each segment.

The poetry of “Standing on the City Walls…” is based on the traditional structure of a 7-syllable line.  Here an extra syllable is often added to the traditional 2+2+3 structure to produce lines of 3+2+3 syllables.

1.我正在         城楼            观山景,

wǒzhèngzài  chénglóu    guānshāntíng,

I am at          city walls   looking at the mountain scenery,

2.耳听得     城外                       乱纷纷。

ěrtīngde      héngwài               luànfēnfēn.

Hearing      outside the city  disorder everywhere.

3.旌旗         招展                空翻影,

jīngqí          zhāozhǎn       kōngfānyǐng,

Banners     flutter             shadows tumble,

4.却原来是             司马        发来的兵.

quèyuánláishì       sīmǎ        fāláidebīng

It must be that     Sima         troops sent here.

At a quick tempo, an extra syllable or two can be added to the 2+2+3 scheme without doing much violence to the overall feel of the line’s tripartite form.  Sometimes the extra syllables help clarify the meaning a bit: “I am at” and “Hearing” could have been expressed using the 2-syllable forms wǒzài (我在) and tīngde (听得) instead of the 3-syllable forms Zhuge Liang sings.  Sometimes the break in poetic form can help intensify the character’s expression:

7. 一来是       马谡            无谋少才能,

yīláishì          mǎsù          wúmóushǎocáinéng,

First              Ma Su        is talentless and planned poorly,

The final part of the line is expanded from three syllables to five, allowing Zhuge Liang to multiply Ma Su’s faults and to emphasize the fact that Ma Su is, indeed, a blockhead.

There is another method for expanding the lengths of lines, and that is by simply adding on more 3-, 4- or 5- syllable units to the end of a line.  Such lines no longer have the 3-part division we’ve been looking at before, but might contain 4, 5 or more small cells of text, each cell forming a complete syntactic unit and slightly set apart from its neighbors.  For example:

18. 为什么     你犹豫不定           进退两难,            所为的何情.

wèishénme  nǐyóuyùbùdìng,   jìntuìliǎngnán, suǒwéidehéqíng.

Why             are you hesitating,        in a dilemma         what kind of feeling?

Instead of a standard line length of 2+2+3 or 3+3+4 syllables, we end up with a Frankenstein verse constructed of 3+5+4+5 syllables.

If you don’t speak Chinese, these considerations of verse-length and verse-structure might seem arcane and irrelevant.  But the variations in line length, the caesuras and rhythm of the traditional three-part verse line, all have audible consequences for the music.  If you know a little something about the structure of the verse, the structure of the music becomes a bit clearer to you as well.  We’ll discuss that next time.

Here is the aria text in full, with translation:

1-2. 我正在城楼观山景,耳听得城楼乱纷纷.

1. Standing on the city walls, admiring the mountain scenery,

2. I hear below there is noise and confusion everywhere.

3-4. 旌旗招展空翻影,却原来是司马发来的兵.

3. Banners and flags flap in the breeze, their shadows tumble about,

4. This must certainly mean that Sima’s army has arrived.

5-6. 我也曾差人去打听,打听得司马领兵往西行.

5. I had sent scouts to every corner,

6. To learn whether Sima’s armies were marching westward.

7-8. 一来是马谡无谋少才能, 二来是将帅不和失街亭.

7. One came to tell me about talentless Ma Su’s poor plans,

8. A second came to tell me that armies could not hold Jieting.

9-10. 连得三城多侥幸,含而无厌你又夺我的西城.

9. Your brigades were quite lucky to take three of our cities,

10. Out of insatiable greed, you now want to take Xicheng.

11-12. 诸葛亮在敌楼把驾等,等候了司马到此谈啊,谈,谈,谈心.

11. Zhuge Liang waits with his command on the turret,

12. Expecting the arrival of Sima here, talking, talk, talk, talking about arrangements.

13-14. 西城外街道打扫净, 预备着司马好屯兵.

13. Ensuring the streets of Xicheng are swept spotless,

14. Getting all in ready to station Sima’s soldiers.

15-16. 诸葛并无有别的敬, 早预备下羊羔美酒犒赏你的三军.

15. Zhuge Liang could offer no less mark of respect,

16. I have prepared some fresh mutton and tasty wine to reward your victorious three armies.

17-18. 即到此就该把城进,为什么你犹豫无定,进退两难,所为的何情.

17. This was all arranged for your arrival in the city,

18. Why this hesitation and uncertainty, can you really feel yourself in a pickle?

19-20. 左右有琴童人两个,我是又无有埋伏又无有兵.

19. To my left and right are lads assisting on the zither,

20. I have no hidden troops or guards.

21-22. 你莫要胡思乱想心不定,来来来请上城楼来听我抚琴.

21. Don’t just stand there dazed and confused,

22. Come! Come! Come into the city and hear me strum the zither!