Archive for November, 2011

A few thoughts in advance

As Bertrand mentioned in the previous post, I had a short trip to France last week, to see a Beijing opera performance on the spot.

Obviously I would have missed it if Bertrand wouldn’t have sent the link to me – somehow I’m miserable in spotting performances in Europe, but slowly I start to figure out where to search. Program schedule of the Shanghai Jingju Troupe includes every performance in China and outside. Program schedule of the Tianjin Jingju Troupe lists only the performances that take place in the theater itself, for others you have to look in the News section, a bit troublesome.

This wasn’t the first time the Jingju Theater of Tianjin, lead by Wang Ping, visited Europe: in 2009 they already had a tour in France. At that time they came with a highlights performance, now in 2011 a full, though shorter edition opera, Female Generals of the Yangs was added to the program.

I think Beijing opera, also Chinese opera in general belongs to the whole world as cultural heritage, and since China’s open policy some efforts are made to introduce this art form to the West. However, I always had a feeling that this introduction is not as throughout as desired, as if they thought we wouldn’t comprehend the more subtle meaning and real glamour of jingju anyways.

That’s just natural that Chinese opera doesn’t have a huge audience and massive fan base in Europe or North America, but I wouldn’t blame it entirely on the lack of interest from the Western part.

Xiaodouzi at xikao.com made a post in his blog earlier, discussing translation issues. He pointed out that while the Japanese attach importance to providing the West with English words they find suitable for  “untranslatable” Japanese expressions, the Chinese just rant and ramble about how ridiculous they find the word “Mandarin duck” for yuanyang or “mung bean milk” for douzhi, but do not suggest a better translation.

He has it right. We are willing to learn, just teach us.

Unfortunately China’s jingju scene is struggling hard to get new audiences even in their own country. I spent lots of time on Weibo lately (“Twitter” of the Sina network), and just ran into a fiery discussion about Wang Peiyu’s popularization methods and Shi Yihong’s unconventional blockbuster Unicorn Purse – both were attacked on account of selling national essence on the marketplace of wealth and fame.

That’s just natural that this kind of talk raises up the question of financial problems.

You surely remember the video Bertrand uploaded about the hardships of managing a jingju theater. While the China National Jingju Company enjoys the full financial support of the government, other theaters and troupes have to balance on the edge of maintaining the standards of traditional Beijing opera and popularizing productions to make profit. (Even the initial giggling at these pictures of chickens turned into a discussion about financial support: Zhang Jianguo’s artistic chicken is sponsored by the government, while the Jingju Theater of Beijing can afford only the B-category prop Zhang Jianfeng is holding.)

And now I finally arrived to the point where I want to join the two threads, namely the “pearls to pigs” phenomenon and the question of financial problems.

Apparently, at least one group of Chinese opera fans doesn’t consider the members of Tianjin’s “Europe Troupe” cultural ambassadors, rather they take pity on them because they have to tour to make a living.
Indeed, troupe members seemed to be tired. They seemed to be homesick. They seemed to be a bit deserted. Zhao Hua is sick of French food.
But I do hope despite all hardships they were aware of their own significance – when can we see Beijing opera in Europe? Once in a year at the most. And we can’t choose what play to watch. Can’t choose which troupe to watch. Can’t pick the lead actors, can’t pick the theater. We even can’t pick the country.
I hope my letter that took days to compose was delivered to Wang Ping – besides some personal flattery it also contained a wholeheartedly written paragraph expressing gratitude to all performers, musicians and crew members.

For me, this performance itself and the aftermaths resulted in a unique, though somewhat sobering experience. It was absolutely worth the effort and expenses I’ve put into it. However, my final conclusion is that if you want to see Beijing opera in its full glory and splendor, with enthusiastic spectators yelling “Hao! Hao”, a trip to mainland China is unavoidable. So don’t get rid of your piggy banks guys.

My actual report back

Good news (at least for myself): planes didn’t crash. The hotel was cheap, semi-comfortable but very tidy. Despite all rumors, public transportation in Paris was not complicated at all. Every literate person can manage with the maps and time schedules provided at the stations, also the crew is willing to help out if you tell them where you wanna go. Of course it won’t hurt if you figure out your route in advance.

The performance in question was The Female Generals of the Yang Family by the Tianjin Jingju Troupe, held in Théâtre Espace Coluche in Plaisir.

My overall impression is that the online communication of this production was somewhat mediocre. Neither the French, nor the Chinese side provided a complete list of tour stations. Most of the French sites failed to clearly indicate exactly what excerpts the acrobatic opera highlights performance consists of. Equinoxe-lagrandescene.com listed them, but without a cast.

Printed material of the French was decent. The program pamphlet listed all troupe members and their awards, but didn’t contain a cast list, namely who played who. The storyline of the opera was explained in French, moreover the whole play had French subtitles. The street poster was very nice.

Plaisir is a suburb of Paris, and the district I had my accommodation in had a strong rural feeling (I saw words like “fermière” on signs and the road I frequently took was called “Route des 2 Plateaux”. I really had to climb two small plateaus. Otherwise, pretty boring little town. This is the most exciting photo I made:

Here are a few pictures of the theater and street advertising:

 

Performance started at 9pm, one hour before was a little make-up show accompanied by live jinghu music which I didn’t really watch because I was too busy figuring out whether I have a chance to meet performers later or not. I couldn’t see anything due to the hoards of French matrons anyways.

Soon I came to the conclusion that if I want to give my letter addressed to Wang Ping to someone, this is the single opportunity, so with an elegant “Excusez-moi!” I placed my elbow between the ribs of an elderly lady and made my way to the Xixia king who already finished with his face paint and sit there in total stupor, staring at a lady who repeatedly asked him something in French. I don’t blame them for being less smiley, if I would be put on display in undergarment for a crowd of middle-aged foreign women, I wouldn’t smile either. “For Wang Ping?”, he asked, took my letter and nodded that he’ll deliver it.
Thus I finished my first mission.

(edit) By the way, I just found this photo, Wang Ping returned to China in November (I don’t know exactly why), and checked out the Shanghai International Art Festival on the 6th -  isn’t that crazy, if he’s flying back and forth, who knows where he is on a certain day?


I give up on tracking down this man…


Mu Guiying and Chai Junzhu

The next one was to make a video. I had a good seat, second row, I could have sit anywhere else by the way, the theater wasn’t full. The compact camera I mentioned in my comment on the previous post is a very decent device, but I haven’t used it before, and had only medium success with the first act, zooming in and out, trying to find a good angle and fixing my skeleton in an effective yet somewhat convenient position. Even though the camera is light-weight, I had trouble to hold it motionless for more than one and a half hour.
Yes, the play was only 1 hour and 40 minutes long. (Actually I might have known that they won’t stage a three hour long full Yangmen Nüjiang as entertainment show.)


Yang girls. I think the pale orange one is a boy.

Stage set was a typical traveling one, if I want to borrow Bertrand’s words, a “bare bones” set, what I didn’t mind at all. The play was divided into ten acts, with curtain after each one. Of course the storyline was custom tailored, I especially missed one of my favorite parts, the martial arts competition, when Yang Wenguang is pleading with his mother: “Ma, Ma, let me win!”


“Bravo!”, said the Emperor.

Costumes were as refined as you might expect from professionals, I especially enjoyed “live” costumes – robes swishing and headdresses clattering, you don’t hear these on TV. Just like during all performances, tassels and pearls that fell on the ground were elegantly kicked out of the stage later, the audience found this greatly amusing.


Yang banner

Personally I like Wang Yan (王艳),  the fresh Plum Blossom winner Mei school qingyi who played the role of Mu Guiying. She’s a very lively actress, with a strong clear voice. Also she has a good sense of humor. I admit that Mei style is stressful for my ears now and then, but never with Wang Yan.

Her husband, the popular Zhao Hua (赵华), disciple of Zhang Xuejin came as the emperor, and Li Hong (李宏) (you  already could meet her here) as She Taijun. Yang Wenguang was Wang Yi (王一) for sure, and I’m pretty sure Bai Xianglong (白相龙) played the king of Western Xia.


Enemy camp: Barbarians! :P

From this particular performance, my favorite character was Zhang Biao, portrayed by the first-class wusheng Si Ming (司鸣). I’m not 100% sure about other members of the cast. I think Cheng Meng (程萌) played Yang Qiniang and Li Shanshan (李珊珊) Chai Junzhu, but I’m not sure, especially about the latter.


“The Uruks turn northeast!” Erm, no, “We are on the Southeast slope!”


Meeting of the two camps

I chose two videos to upload, I hope you’ll like them despite all of the unprofessional camerawork. The first few seconds are blurry and shaky, and the final scene is missing a couple of minutes – unfortunately this camera can record only 23:35 long videos, and I failed to notice that time is running out. The Yang generals capture Wang Wen, and right when they would kill him, the video ends. Sorry for this, but the last part had the most spectacular action and I wanted to share it.
Both were converted to convenient MP4 format and reasonable size with Handbrake.

Click here to download “The Hall of Ancestors” scene

Click here to download “The Last Assault – Victory” scene

According to the program leaflet, members of the Europe troupe are Wang Ping (王平) as general artistic director, Wang Yan (王艳), Li Hong (李宏), Cheng Meng (程萌), Wang Pengfei (王鹏飞), Huang Qifeng (黄齐峰), Wu Peiwen (许佩文), Li Shanshan (李珊珊), Li Feng, Zhang Chanyu (张蝉玉), Hou Peizhi (侯佩志), Rui Zhenqi (芮振起), Si Ming (司鸣), Zhao Hua (赵华), Wang Yi (王一), Bai Xianglong (白相龙), Cheng Honglei (程洪磊), Gao Hang (高航), Han Qing, Han Yansong, Li Xiaoqing, Li Wei, Li Zhen, Liu Xueyong, Liu Yong, Lu Yan (路岩), Qi Jiaqiang, Quan Shouchang, Shao Hailong (邵海龙), Wei Yigang (魏以刚), Xing Tao, Yang Kang, Yang Zaihan, Zhang Yao.

See You later, and I seriously hope the “Travels of Fern” category will have more posts in the future.

And forgive my poor English. (Can we start a sentence with “and” in English? It’s not allowed in Hungarian.)

(edit) I mentioned the theater in Plaisir wasn’t full. Another spectator mentioned the theater in Avignon wasn’t full. But actually, “not full” is relative. This kinda heart-wrenching photo is currently floating around, demonstrating why China’s local operas need support:

Just by coming, spectators of France were showing support.

If you are Wang Ping or a member of his “Europe team” touring in France, yes, that blonde with the Wang Peiyu haircut is indeed the co-blogger of operabeijing.com, please let her in backstage!

Have fun Fern, just don’t try any of those acrobatic back flips they show you yourself.

I promised here before that young huadan actress Yang Yang (杨扬) will be featured in a shorter and lighter play later.

The following 30min long scene is the first story of a lengthy opera, Jin Yunu《金玉奴》. The cast list is very short, Yang Yang is accompanied by the natural born first-class chou of China National Jingju Company, Xu Mengke (徐孟珂) and Zhang Qiaodi (张乔迪), 23 years old xiaosheng of Jiangsu Changrong Jingju Theater. (He’s standing in front of the theater on the picture below. Could you recognize him on the street? I couldn’t. ^^)

I like this little play for multiple reasons: it’s featuring three lesser appreciated roles – huadan, chou and xiaosheng (let’s face it, most of the time the charming qingyi and the high spirited laosheng steal the attention of the audience from other performers), and it has many acting, even without understanding the language, you can figure out the characters’ emotions and even laugh at jokes. (At least I had fun watching Mo Ji burning his tongue and hungrily licking the bowl and chopsticks.)

京剧《豆汁记》 Douzhiji (The Story of the Mung Bean Milk)

Click here to download the video.

Length: 0:31:24 File size: 244MB, 720×576 Extension: MKV
Jiangsu Changrong Jingju Theater, 2010-12-18

Summary of the story:

Linan, Zhejiang, coldest winter. A starving scholar, Mo Ji collapses near to the doorway of a beggar, Jin Song.

Jin Yunu, daughter of Jin Song is standing in the door, waiting for his father to return. She sees the young man lying in the snow, frozen almost to dead, and after Mo Ji tells her he has no house to live in and has no food to eat, Yunu invites him inside to allay his hunger with a bowl of hot douzhi. The young scholar is very handsome, and Jin Yunu falls for him immediately.


Jin Yunu takes pity on the poor trembling boy

Jin Song returns home, and after her daughter ensures him Mo Ji is in the house by her invitation, they feed multiple bowls of douzhi to him. Though Mo Ji is already full and warmed up, Yunu doesn’t want him to go and asks his father to arrange a marriage with him.

Jin Song is carefully inquiring about the family background and conditions of the boy, who turns out to be a learned scholar who fell on hard times after his parents died and the family business withered. Mo Ji is currently homeless, also he sees that Yunu is pretty and only 16, so finally the match is made.


“Daddy, ask him to marry me!”

(However, the story has a sinister twist to it later. Mo Ji goes to the capital to enter the imperial examinations and succeeds. He takes up a new job in Jiangxi, but is ashamed of the humble family conditions of his wife, and on the way to Jiangxi he heartlessly tosses Jin Yunu into the river from the boat.
Fortunately the Jiangxi governor, Lin Run saves Yunu, and takes care of her as his own daughter, moreover he’s sending out his men to find Jin Song.
Later Lin Run is offering his daughter to Mo Ji as wife, who’s of course overjoyed at the good opportunity to claim higher status. He happily enters the bridal room, but unexpectedly gets beaten up.
Jin Yunu publicly reprimands Mo Ji for being unfaithful, and Lin Run dismisses him from office.)

Pictures: Rehearsals, Stage photos

Beijing Opera master Li Shaochun, best known for his creative ideas and wide repertoire would be 92 today. Let’s wish him a Happy Birthday!

Life and works

Li Shaochun (李少春) was born as Li Baolin on 4th November,1919 in Hebei. His father, Li Guichun was a noted bangzi and jingju performer, but couldn’t afford to send his son to Ye Chunshan’s popular Fu Lian Cheng (China’s largest Beijing opera school) or any specialized school, and taught his son with his own method, based on his own stage experience. As a result, besides practicing theater skills, the little Shaochun got proper cultural education too, also picked up the good habit of self-study and turned into a real all rounder.

Li Guichun trained his son in martial arts first, and put emphasis on singing and acting later, thus placing Shaochun’s later career on a solid foundation – no matter it was a play with or without acrobatics, he could accept every appointment. Li Guichun’s motto was: “If you want to learn something, learn it at once; if you see something good, learn it at once.” Consequently, when Li Shaochun saw that Yu Shuyan’s singing is good, he immediately accepted him as teacher. When he saw that Yang Xiaolou is brilliant in wusheng role, he started to learn Yang school skills from Ding Yongli. When he saw an outstanding street performer juggling with the lance, he immediately invited him to his home.


Mei Lanfang (梅兰芳) and Yang Xiaolou (杨小楼) in Farewell my Concubine (1922)

Li Shaochun was good at differentiating between polished and rough, beautiful and ugly; he was able to learn the essence of different schools without being bond by them; he managed to carry on tradition and to break through conventions at the same time – practically he absorbed art from everywhere.
He studied Yu Shuyan’s singing style, Zhou Xinfang’s lifelike character portrayal, Ma Lianliang’s elegant stage appearance and demeanor. Regarding martial skills, he enhanced his Yang school-based style with the characteristics of Gai Jiaotian’s performing art.


Gai Jiaotian (盖叫天) with tiger

Li Shaochun was barely 14 when cooperated with Mei Lanfang in Silang Visits His Mother, and in the late 1940s raised to new artistic heights with his performance in Wildboar Forest with Yuan Shihai and Du Jinfang. In 1962, Beijing Film Studio adapted the latter for the silver screen, and I’m daring to say he set a new standard for the role with that movie.


With Yuan Shihai (袁世海) in Wildboar Forest

After the establishment of PRC in 1949, Li Shaochun, Yuan  Shihai and Ye Shengzhang were “organized” into the New Chinese Experimental Jingju Troupe. Their excellent staging of Yunluoshan and The Wildboar Forest got favorable criticism from all levels of spectators, also their creative spirit of innovation in the new adaptation of The Reconciliation of the Minister and the General won recognition.

After the establishment of the China National Jingju Company in 1955 January, Li Shaochun was appointed as head of the First, then the Third Troupe. The “Li-Yuan-Ye-Du” team of that time was adept at merging ideas from every schools of art and carrying on tradition, also bold enough to innovate. The same year in May, Zhou Enlai made a suggestion to the troupe: if Western audiences like Havoc in Heaven with the Monkey King so much, why don’t they adapt the play into a longer Big Havoc in Heaven? The Monkey King is one of Li Shaochun’s memorable roles, his Sun Wukong in the new play was lively and powerful, yet elegant at the same time.


As the Monkey King

Another milestone in the development of Beijing Opera and also in Li Shaochun’s career was the noisy and unexpected success of a modern opera, The White Haired Girl in 1958. His portrayal of Yang Bailao deeply touched the audience and was praised far and wide.


With Du Jinfang in The White Haired Girl

Another “trend-setter” role of Li Shaochun was Qin Qiong in Story of the Bandit. He was performing this play on the 10th anniversary of PRC’s foundation in a unique, blue costume with two blades on his back.


Zhou Enlai congratulating backstage after Story of the Bandit

In 1962, the young performers of the Forth Troupe staged Red Fills the River. Li Shaochun and Yuan Shihai watched the play, and found the portrayal of Yue Fei, China’s national hero so remarkable that they re-modeled the role of the legendary general and poet. This new-style Yue Fei character is considered the most splendid on the stage of Beijing Opera.

Similarly to other Beijing Opera artists, the Cultural Revolution ruined Li Shaochun’s life and career. Finally he couldn’t bear the political pressure any longer, and died in deep regret and depression on the 21st September in 1975. He was only 56 years old.

Repertoire

To introduce Li Shaochun’s legendary repertoire (around 200 plays) is a big, though not impossible task. This time I would like to limit myself to summarizing only the most famous ones. I borrowed the following practical tables from his biography book, and added the English titles to the pictures. You can see the complete list here.

I wanted to add a few excerpts from the Wildboar Forest movie to this post, but I simply couldn’t decide which ones. On one hand, I can’t find a single minute in that play I would be able to leave out, on the other hand I just can’t post the full movie since my copies are similar to Bertrand’s On the Dock DVD.

The best solution that came to my mind was to post Li Shaochun’s most iconic arias in mp3 format and upload a 18min long video with one of Mr. Li’s best present day representatives, Wang Ping. (I’ve listened to a few versions of this opera before, and the only one who I really liked so far was Wang Ping. He’s a versatile actor with all the skills required for this role: good voice, polished acting, fine martial skills, elegant movement on stage, vivid character portrayal and touching heartstrings. Bonus point goes for attractive appearance. ^‿^ I hope you’ll like him too. The two chou characters are also fun to watch.)

Excerpts from Wildboar Forest:
“大雪飘扑人面” Li Shaochun (mp3)
“四月清和微风暖” Li Shaochun, Du Jinfang (mp3)
“八十棍打得我冲天愤恨” Li Shaochun (mp3)

京剧《野猪林·发配》Yezhulin · Fa Pei (Wildboar Forest – Exiled)
Wang Jiaqing (王嘉庆) as Lu Zhishen, Wang Ping (王平) as Lin Chong
10 Great Laosheng Schools Special Stage, 2010-10-03
Mei Lanfang Grand Theater, Beijing

Click here to download the video. (.mkv)


Lin Chong is transported to the middle of nowhere to serve a penal sentence.
You can read the full story here.

Places of interest in China:

Li Shaochun Grand Theater (李少春大剧院), Li Shaochun Memorial Hall (李少春纪念馆)
Bazhou, Hebei
Google Maps | Brief introduction with pictures
The traditional style interior of the theater is just gorgeous!

Click here to leave a virtual offering at Mr. Li’s memorial.
Can you find mine? -‿-

I’m not a great expert in finishing posts nicely, so I just wish you all a great weekend before I leave the city for the countryside.
See you next week!

Source: lishaochun.net, excerpts from Li Shaochun’s biography titled 《博美精新——李少春传 略》
Pictures: dysjyd.comyishengchongai.blog.163.com,
sarusakanasaiyo.seesaa.net/archivescnpoc.cncnpoc.cn

An axe!

When I downloaded it months before, I knew it will be good for a Halloween post.
An absurd drama with Li Baochun, who’s not afraid to push innovation to extremes. The only thing that made me a bit hesitant is that though the sound and picture of this video is very nice, the resolution is only 384×288.
Fortunately Bertrand provided me with a few practical guidelines before, so I took the followings into consideration:

- Performance quality.
A hard to come by play, performed during the 9th China Shanghai International Arts Festival (2007) by the Taipei New Theatrical Troupe and some artists borrowed from mainland China. Sounds interesting enough.

- Performers.
This short description I found about Li Baochun in this article in English is straightforward and well-written:

Li Baochun is the founder of the Taipei Li-yuan Peking Opera Theatre. Born into a family with a great theatrical heritage in China, his grandfather and parents were all celebrated Peking Opera masters. His father, the legendary Li Shaochun, had a repertoire that is still considered unsurpassable. Following his father’s steps, Li Baochun specialises in “wenwu laosheng” (older male roles in both civil and military categories). At the age of 9, he began performing under the strict discipline of his grandfather. He was admitted to the renowned Beijing Peking Opera School where he studied for eight years. He has put much effort into re-arranging old works with a fresh approach.

(I would like to add that I’m currently working on a “birthday post” for Li Shaochun who would be 92 on the 4th November, and was counting the pieces of his repertoire just yesterday evening. I stopped after 160 and for the sake of my and your sanity, gave up my original idea of listing them all…)

One of my personal favorites, Zhang school qingyi Zhao Qun was borrowed from the Shanghai Jingju Troupe for this production, Sun Zhengyang is Jiansu’s leading chou performer, and qingyi-huadan Huang Yulin from Taiwan shows us a special skill, qiaogong, moving around on tiptoes in tiny shoes, imitating bound feet. (This controversial practice will be discussed later in the third part of the “costume posts”. I personally don’t find it even remotely attractive, but it’s interesting indeed.)

- Staging.
Well, nothing special, but Sun Zhengyang’s “living statue” costume is enough in itself to label the staging “unique”.

- Individual particularities.
Dancing on fake bound feet. Jingju Pinocchio. Grave robbery for brain. Modern phrases in spoken lines.

- Animal performers.
Butterflies on wire. (The drama is also called Butterfly Dream.)

Summary of the story:

Zhuang Zhou left home to achieve the Dao. On his way back home, he meets a young widow, who is impatiently blowing the fresh grave of his deceased husband with a fan, to make it dry quickly so that she can remarry. Zhuang Zhou becomes curious what would his wife do if he died? He decides to test his wife, Mrs. Tian, and soon after his arrival at home, he pretends illness and dies a false death.
He brings a statue to life to act in his service (I think he can do it using his Daoist skills), and soon re-appeares as his own student, Chu Wangsun, who feels so sorry for his teacher that stays with the mourning family for hundred days. Mrs. Tian falls in love with Wangsun, and they plan to marry.
One night Chu Wangsun pretends to have a terrible and fatal headache, and says that human brain tissue dissolved in hot wine may be a cure. Mrs. Tian finds out that the brain tissue of a corpse is also good for 49 days. She takes an axe and though she feels bad about it, hacks the coffin of his husband. In this moment, Zhuang Zhou suddenly “comes to life”, and reprimands his wife.

In the original story, Mrs. Tian feels so ashamed that commits suicide. This performance is featuring a modern, new conception ending with a “Spouse wanted” banner, indicating that Mrs. Tian will be dating again, thus condemning the feudal marriage system in which a woman was expected to live the life of a nun after the death of her husband, also a man could put her wife to these kind of inhumane tests of loyalty.

京剧《试妻大劈棺》 Shi Qi Da Pi Guan (Testing the Wife – Splitting the Coffin Open)

Click here to download the video.

Length: 1:48:31 File size: 360MB, 384×288 Extension: MKV
Tianchan Yifu Theater, Shanghai 2007-10-23

Cast:

Zhuang Zhou/Chu Wangsun: Li Baochun (李宝春)
Mrs. Tian: Zhao Qun (赵群)
Dope: Sun Zhengyang (孙正阳)
The young widow: Huang Yulin (黄宇琳)
Maid servant: Gao Meiyu (高美瑜)

I borrowed this photo from the blog of dysc, who is a frequent theatergoer. Li Baochun looks like a carbon copy of his father. ⊙_⊙

I hope you’ll enjoy this unusual play as a Halloween treat. See you later!