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!

There Will Be A Sea of Blood

Many thanks to China’s Global Times for keeping us au courant with the latest news from the world of art and entertainment.

I wonder whether there are franchising opportunities outside the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.   Performances of Mozart and Puccini by a group calling itself the Sea Of Blood Opera Troupe would be totally awesome.

Scene from 2012 performance of The Flower Girl, staged in Xi'an  Photo: CFP

Scene from 2012 performance of The Flower Girl, staged in Xi’an Photo: CFP

North Korea’s Sea of Blood Opera Troupe brought their classic The Flower Girl to China recently. Having performed in eight cities so far, the group will stop in Beijing to stage shows at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) from July 19-22.

The Flower Girl features a girl who picks flowers to sell in the market in order to support her family. With a blind sister and a sick mother at home, the family experiences a tough time, ruled by an oppressive landlord. After the death of the mother, the eldest son escapes from prison and saves his two sisters.

The opera’s 24-year-old leading performer Chae Chul-ok is the fifth generation of her family to play the protagonist.

The stage designer told Chengdu Daily that the set, sound effects, lighting and costumes have all improved since their last performance in China in 2008. A LED screen displays scenes and subtitles from the film.

Revolutionary opera

The Flower Girl is one of North Korea’s five great revolutionary operas, a handful of classical, revolution-themed operas.

Two generations of leaders in North Korea have contributed to the performances. According to Kim Il-sung’s memoir, he wrote the script for the opera in 1930 in Jilin Province, China. After a few rehearsals, the performance was staged for the 13th anniversary of the October Revolution of the same year.

The Flower Girl was turned into a film in the 1970s, directed by Kim Jong-il. The deputy head of the opera troupe Joo Young-il once told the Chinese press that Kim Jong-il personally selected the 38 songs in the film among 2,200 song choices.

Related video: the first part of the 3-hour North Korean epic/epoch-making opera/movie “Sea of Blood”.  The soundtrack, it seems, was recorded at the bottom of a deep, deep well.   Enjoy, comrades!