Sat 17 May 2014
People here in North America frequently ask me two questions about Beijing Opera. The first is, why do I love it? The second is, how can I love it?
These are two different questions.
The first is pretty easy to explain.
There came a point in my life when I consciously decided that in all things it was important to stop wasting time and to seek quality. I stopped watching television and stopped listening to the news on the radio. I stopped watching garbage movies that aim for the lowest common denominator. I stopped reading Dilbert and read Richard Feynman‘s books instead. I put the Astronomy Picture of the Day as my home page. I started to listen to Mozart as much as possible. I tried to eat better and to live as much as possible in the here and now. Once I got in that frame of mind, I became very receptive to something new and beautiful. And Beijing Opera at its best is the most heart stopping beautiful thing imaginable.
The second question is harder, but I do have an explanation for that too.
The way I see it, opera is a lot like baseball. Many people like baseball, but it has its detractors and as one friend put it, “it’s a so-called sport of grown men hanging around in pajamas”. Both baseball and opera have a lot of history and tradition, and a lot of tedious procedure. It starts slow and for a long stretch nothing remarkable or interesting goes on, it just plods along. In either western or Beijing opera, same thing, the good arias and spectacular notes are never at the beginning. A coloratura needs to warm up her voice. You have to wait for it. But what a payoff in the middle innings when it happens: suddenly there are fireworks! A home run on loaded bases! Beijing Opera performers singing the main aria and then moving with the incredible precision they have trained all their lives for! Poetry in motion, with singing! It’s not hard to get drawn in to the “how”.
Right now Beijing Opera is not advertised well by China. Some performers are simply so much better than others, but are not promoted better or differently. You first have to understand jingju, know the different schools, see the same plays a few times to figure out who you think the really outstanding performers are. The current system is a bit too egalitarian, and the dices are loaded when there are competitions. Not necessarily the brightest and the best win at the most opportune moment. I used to think I was getting it all wrong, but the Chinese audiences watching the plays on the videos react the same way I do and at the same moment. Those events are more like “lifetime recognition” awards than “choice” awards I guess.
In western opera, fans have it easier. Pretty much anyone opening and closing the season at the Metropolitan Opera is generally considered as the best. You don’t have to beat yours brains out about it, here let me help you: Fleming, Netrebko and Gheorgiu for the gals, Diego Florez for the gents, Muti for the direction. Done.
But the day will come soon when the Chinese DVDs of its brightest stars will be “all region”, in HD, and with multi-language subtitles with no spelling errors in them.
Any sane person will see then the why and the how the same way I do.