Sun 31 Jul 2011
(originally published on: Apr 13, 2010)
First, spellings in English vary. “Mei Lanfang”is also regularly spelled “Mei Lan Fang”.
Mei Lanfang was simply the most important Beijing Opera artist of the 20th Century in China. He interpreted female Dan roles, but it is unfair to judge his contribution to the genre simply by listening to the rather thin-sounding archival recording on this MP3.
Mei Lanfang stretched the genre and spent his 50 year career constantly improving his craft. He researched costumes and court hair styles from ancient illustrations and brought them back to life. He invented dances with plumes and swords, and he was said to have beautiful and uniform motions and gestures. He was patriotic and refused to perform for the occupation Japanese forces. He founded his own school to teach. He brought Beijing Opera out to the world for the first time ever by touring.
A historical explanation from a CCTV web page:
Chinese opera has many strong female roles, though for most of its history, no females to play them. Women in China, especially of the upper class, had to observe very reserved and controlled conduct, and for the most part confined themselves indoors. A woman who paraded herself on stage would be considered no better than a prostitute. Instead, men would play the female roles. At certain times in opera history, these female impersonators were the greatest stars of the stage. Their peak in popularity occured in the 20s, 30s, and 40s, the best among them widely acknowledged to be Mei Lanfang, whose performances both at home and abroad in Japan, the Soviet Union, and the United States, influenced such famous dramatists as Berthold Brecht and Stanislavsky. He also met with and performed for famous actors such as Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford. In addition to his mastery of over 100 roles, he also advanced Peking Opera by making significant changes to the costumes, staging, make-up, and texts, in effect creating a number of new plays, including his most famous, Farewell My Concubine.