Archive for March, 2012

Zhao Huan

Well the car lost a hub cap in the springtime “hen’s nest” pot holes on the Quebec City streets, the son caught a cold and I lost a day of work watching over his fever, my work website that I kept for ten years is now gone for good, there was record hot temperatures all over North Am and here as well (20 degrees C in March!), the hot water hater leaked overnight and I was up until 2 in the morning salvaging old books from water damage, then the plumbers came in at 7 in the morning to emergency replace the tank this morning (that’s what I call “Fern hours”), Benjamin is pestering me every three minutes to go to Walmart so we can buy printer ink and he can look at the Transformers in the toy section…  All in all, I guess it was a normal week here over at the asylum.

Let’s talk about something else now, something nice, i.e. Zhao Huan again. Here’s a nice half hour video program from 2010-07-26 with our favorite MC, Zhang Zhe, interviewing ma nouvelle favorite to ask about her influences (I can’t speak Mandarin yet, but she did mention “Zhang Huoding” twice in a row) and set up two opera excerpts. The first is from “The Empress scolds the Emperor” and the second one is from “Dream in a Girl’s Chamber.”

Zhao Huan

It’s a very nice and surprisingly small mp4 video, only 79 MB.

Click here to download the video

In the first clip, Zhao Huan wear a black nupi, the colour of righteousness, demonstrating impressive control between 5:30 and 6:00. It’s also clear she’s been studying the moves. At 8:28 with the camera position, she seems to stride three inches above ground. It’s good and important for this singer to do plays that have not been done over and over in the recent past.

In the second clip, the Girl’s Chamber now has a garden door and a really big terrace outside. As Billy Crystal would say, “this is the new indoors”.

Big terrace

I posted an excerpt from Zhang Huoding’s DVD of this opera (amazingly, this DVD has reduced in price to 11.95 !)  , exactly the same scene, here  and Zhao Huan admittedly does not give it anything close to the same level of intensity. But let’s be honest, when I attempted to this myself in front of the bathroom mirror this morning, I didn’t look half as good doing it as Zhao Huan.

And I have no idea how I am going to unwrap those towels from the bathroom light fixture.



Zhao Huan (赵欢)

I am prone to exaggeration, and to hyperbole when it comes to my favourite singers. But it isn’t often that I get knocked down from my chair by a Beijing Opera performer I’d never heard of before.

I was trying to profit from a day when my son and I were both home because of his cold, by looking at a treasure trove of Cheng school HD audience videos Fern pointed me to. They’re really tedious to go get though, I have to copy and past the link and title translation into a text file, transfer it to another computer and load them in to Vidown.

I somehow missed Fern’s cue and downloaded two videos of cross-dressing male actor Yang Lei (杨磊) and watched those. Perhaps I will be more impressed another time, but I think at this point his appeal will be limited to hardcore purists.

Fern just wrote this week, “Beijing has Guo Wei, Tianjin has Lü Yang, Shanghai has Zhao Huan – 3rd generation of Cheng school.

Among these, I’ve seen Guo Wei and Lü Yang, both very photogenic and with nice voices. So I decided to check out Zhao Huan, with no expectation at all.

And I saw this audience video from the opera Wenji, filmed just a couple of days ago. Shot without a tripod, audience heads bobbing in front of the camera, with the usual background chatting which makes the audience sound so blasé. The singer sounds echoey and a bit far away, but wait…

Zhao Huan

“Holy cats! What a voice!” (falls out of his chair and lands on the floor, klunk!)

Céline Dion singing live in Quebec City made the hair on the back of my neck stand straight up about 15 years ago. So did Linda Rondstadt live at the Bumbershoot in Seattle in 2001. So did Zhao Huan at 1:16 of this video.

Volume, crystal tone, pitch AND breath control. She makes top star Li Haiyan in the same role from the last post sound poor and weak.

Click here to download video of Zhao Huan (赵欢) in 京剧 文姬归汉 Wenji Gui Han 2012-03-17 (285 MB, .f4v format)

Here is a brief CCTV half hour program with excerpts from two (now very familiar) Cheng school plays, the Unicorn Purse, and Dream in a Girl’s Chamber.

Click here to download part 1 (56 MB)

Click here to download part 2 (38 MB)

A very young girl with a friendly, round face.

Zhao Huan

Wait, one more shakey audience recording that cuts a couple of times and restarts right in the middle, Zhao Huan in Hamlet, from LAST NIGHT!

Click here to download video if Zhao Huan (赵欢) in 逸夫舞台- 殷缡-王子复仇记 Hamlet, Yifu Theatre 2012-03-20

(45 MB)

You can tell a fan shot this, the camera follows her everywhere, not bothering at all with the other actors. 4:41 to 4:47, did you catch that? Sweet.

Zhao Huan

Simply put, the future looks bright ahead.

Li Haiyan

I really like Li Haiyan, she is a magnificent singer.

My phone rang twice, my 8 year-old son came in to fetch a ruler for his homework (the drawing table is in the basement, I’m on the second floor), my wife interrupted as well, all that, still… Li Haiyan’s entrance in the spectacular and uncharacteristically lavish production of Wenji filmed on 2011-09-12 at the Mei Lanfang Theater in Beijing cannot be marred. This is a very nice audience recording with good sound (just don’t forget to turn down the volume a bit) and a great HD picture (also known as “HQ” in Hungary) shot on a tripod.

We just went over the story for this opera, the story of a kidnapped princess who bears her captor two sons. Then, years later, her ransom is finally paid and she has to decide if she will return to her own country and abandon all her loves behind.

This is a very well lit play, especially for Beijing Opera, with tasteful, lush set decorations, wonderful painted backdrops inspired to my eyes by the Canadian Group of Seven, all of which translates to a “hybrid play” of Beijing Opera, not for purists of the genre. If you saw this set’s furniture in a retail store, it would cost $7000 for the calligraphy table alone.

Li Haiyan enters wearing an absolutely gorgeous costume and headdress and sings rather quietly at first. She moves delicately, playing a creature of perfumed splendor with subtlety in a sumptuous production where everything is big and in your face.

Experimenting is bound to happen, and indeed, there is an odd moment of pre-recorded music at 45:00, with Li Haiyan standing looking stunned, followed by a (canned ?) serenade over dialogue. This sequence was not particularly successful I think, but is the exception overall.

There is perhaps too much dialogue by secondary players. The “boy” is shrill to my ears, played by a petite adult actress almost a head shorter than the other actors.

The end of Li Haiyan’s aria which begins at 52:00 segues into a nice but out of place orchestral sweep that begins at 54:00 which feels quite a bit “modern red”. This happens again during Song Xiaochuan’s next aria.

In part two, Li Hayan arrives “by chariot”. This should have been one of the highlights of the opera, but Li Haiyan is not entirely convincing. Bad miking? Strange arrangement? Sore throat? Music too loud and the performer can’t hear herself on stage without monitors? Or is her singing too subtle with some of it is lost in the 12th row?

Her best moments comes as her character visits the tomb (on her pilgrimage home or as a side trip before going home?) during the 7 minutes or so that begin at 28:00. She plays hesitation and indecision in a very low key fashion, no obvious pantomime or high drama.

The final farewell takes forever (I thought she was halfway home already?) I’m confused, the son stays with her at the end in this one?

In conclusion, a splendid show, despite a couple of off-kilter details.

It would have been nice to be been standing on stage right next to Li Haiyan in full costume as she was singing it.

Click here to download part 1

Click here to download part 2

Thank you to Fern who sent me the link to this admirable fan’s page at tudou.

A nice article in English about the “crossover queen” here.

Farewell My Concubine


Because of the movie of the same name, here is a Beijing Opera that most western audiences have heard about. It is totally unfair to the play, however, to watch the movie before seeing this as Director Chen Kaige’s film is a brutal tragedy that is, in my humble opinion, overtly hostile to Beijing Opera if only because it systematically dwells on all the historically bad points of its rigorous training and lifestyle. If you have not seen the movie, be warned it features children being maimed, beaten to death, and sexually assaulted and that deep human betrayal is one of its central themes (if not its main theme).

The story of the original play, from Wikipedia:

Farewell My Concubine (Chinese: 霸王别姬, Pinyin: “Ba Wang Bie Ji”) is a Chinese Peking Opera. A more literal translation of the Chinese title is The Hegemon King says Farewell to his Queen.

The play tells the story of Xiang Yu, the self-styled “Hegemon-King of Western Chu” who battled for the unification of China with Liu Bang, the eventual founder of the Han Dynasty. In the play, Xiang Yu is surrounded by Liu Bang’s forces and on the verge of total defeat, so he calls forth his horse and begs it to run away for the sake of its own safety. The horse refuses, against his wishes. He then calls for the company of his favorite concubine, Consort Yu (aka Yuji). Realizing the dire situation that has befallen them, she begs to die alongside her master, but he strongly refuses this wish. Afterwards, as he is distracted, Yu commits suicide with Xiang Yu’s sword.

This staging from 2011-06-07 at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre sounds very different than what I am used to with plays staged in Beijing. More natural hall reverb aside, it seems lead actor Law Kar-ying has brought his musicians from Taiwan. Everything sounds different, both in string instruments, and percussion. The “striding” gongs and wood blocks are quite unfamiliar and often sound like metal garbage can tops. Also, I’m not 100% sure the musicians are using entirely traditional instruments, there is a suspiciously MIDI-sounding muted chord instrument in there. There is also what sounds like a rock band ride cymbal from time to time. I would have liked to see the orchestra, but they were hidden away. [We do get a brief glimpse of two players near the climax of Part 2.]

Here is Shi Yihong, one of the very top names in Beijing Opera today, in a cultural exchange experiment and in a costume and makeup that do not flatter her, singing in a style that is not her own. In the past, she has triumphed in Shanghai, then conquered Beijing, has done modern orchestral experiments and strayed into Cheng Unicorn territory. But is she versatile enough for this? Certainly. In she walks at the very opening of the play, voice fully warmed up and at 34:50, she wows the upper scale Hong Kong audience with a sustained note that demonstrates she is in top form.

I’m very unfamiliar with Taiwanese opera, and have not heard of Law Kar-ying before. He has a very good voice and decisive, fluid free-flowing movement. Not as stiff as the Beijing style, his acting comes across as more realistic to my eyes.

The play is under an hour long and is very low on surprises. This staging seems to have forgotten all about horsies. I dare say Shi Yihong’s extended and spectacular sword handling routine in the opening of part 2 saves the show from being tedious!

Shi Yihong helicopter

In the end, Consort Yu’s death is anticlimactic.

This rather old fashioned story of undying love was, I think, freely subverted by film Director Chen Kaige who seems to have been asking us instead, “What if Yuji had been betrayed by Xiang Yu and their love had not been so pure? What then?

In conclusion, this particular video is interesting (perhaps for the wrong reasons), a bit odd, and quite short.

Thank you to Fern for sending it my way!


Click here to download part 1

Click here to download part 2