A withering look from the Empress in Xie Yahuan

This production was performed by the National Beijing Opera troupe at the Chang’an Grand Theater in Beijing, on 2011-06-06. It was broadcast on CCTV’s “Theater In the Air” program two weeks later on 2011-06-23.

The tragic Beijing opera “Xie Yaohuan” was created by the famous Chinese playwright Tian Han, in 1961. The title was named after the heroine Xie Yaohuan, an official in the reign of Empress Wu Zetian.

The story (adapted from here):

During the reign of Empress Wu Zetian of the Tang Dynasty, many farmers in the southern region of the Yangtze River fled to join outlaws at Tai Lake because of despotic gentries ruling them. A woman official, Xie Yaohuan, asks the rulers to appease these farmers. Empress Wu Zetian, holding her in high esteem, appoints her to the imperial censor and sends her on an inspection tour of south China.

When Xie arrives in Suzhou, she sees that Wu Hong, a son of Wu Sansi who was a powerful courtier and nephew of Wu Zetian, and Cai Shaobing, a brother of Lai Junchen (AD 651-697) who was a secret police official during the Chinese dynasty Tang Dynasty and Wu Zetian’s Zhou Dynasty, were bullying residents and tussling with righteous Yuan Xingjian during a public gathering. She takes them to Yamun for trial and judges both Wu Hong and Cai Shaobing guilty. Wu and Cai defy the judgement. As Wu and Cai are in contempt of court, Xie orders  Cai beheaded and Wu bludgeoned to death. At the same time, she discovers Yuan Xingjian as a chivalrous man during this affair, and marries him.

However, avenging accomplices, Wu Sansi and Lai Junchen, falsely accuse Xie of having connections with bandits. Empress Wu Zetian decides to investigate the allegation, and arranges a clandestine tour to south China. In the meantime, Xie is thrown into the prison, awaiting execution. After investigating herself, the furious empress orders Lai Junchen executed and Wu Sansi dismissed from his post. She then ennobles Xie Yaohuan Marquis Dingguo. But Xie refuses to go to her post, preferring to be buried alive with her husband Yuan Xingjian in Tai Lake.

Dozens of people play in this opera, it seems. Fern provided the following cast list:

Xie Yaohuan: Zhang Xinyue (张馨月)
Yuan Xingjian: Li Hongtu (李宏图)
Xu Yougong: Zhu Qiang (朱强)
Empress Wu Zetian: Hu Wenge (胡文阁)
Wu Sansi: Chen Junjie (陈俊杰)
Lai Junchen: Huang Yanzhong (黄彦忠)  Head of Tang dynasty Gestapo. Boo!
Su Luangxian: Wang Mengting (王梦婷)
Cai Shaobing, Wu Hong: Zhou Pu (周璞), Huang Baixue (黄柏雪) (the 2 chou characters)

Huang Baixue’s name seemed familiar, he was one of the tax collectors in the tiger-version Barren Mountain. And now I remember, Zhou Pu was supposed to play the other tax collector in that performance, but for some reason another actor substituted him. Seems these two performers are frequently paired up(?)

 

Some photos of this performance (which were spotted here):

Hu Wenge as the Empress in Xie Yaohuan

Xie Yaohuan

Xie Yaohuan

Xie Yaohuan

Xie Yaohuan

Xie Yaohuan

Xie Yaohuan

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Xie Yaohuan

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Xie Yaohuan

The big surprise of this opera for me is that the cast features actor Hu Wenge as the Empress, the only male Mei school dan in the past 50 years.

Let me say right off, before Fern told me the Empress was a cross-dressing role, Hu Wenge had me completely fooled and I thought “she” was a terrific “actress”! Hu Wenge sings effortlessly, and honestly, the more you watch him, the more he fools you. An absolutely top notch, superlative performance. “The Empress” is so deliciously evil in this, with those evil sidelong glances, I mean… she literally shoots lightning bolts from those peepers, whew! At about three minutes in, the live Chinese audience already, and deservedly, applauds after Hu Wenge sings his opening.

Fern, you’re going to kill me for this, but to me Cheng Yanqiu is not half as convincing in a female role as Hu Wenge in this production.

There is an English language article here about this interesting actor , from which an excerpt is reproduced here:

A third-generation successor of the Mei school, (Hu Wenge) has realized a childhood dream.

“When I was young, in the opera school where I studied, my teacher teaching Chinese culture wrote a name ‘Mei Lanfang’ on the blackboard. I didn’t know then who he was. My teacher then told me he was the model of all of us who studied the arts. So I engraved this name in my head and set him as my target. Although I knew he was so superior to me, so far away from me, I still regarded him as my spiritual support.”

Hu Wenge was studying Qinqiang, a local opera in northwest China’s Shaanxi province. But for seven years, he had been continuously requesting to be the student of Mei Baojiu, Mei Lanfang’s son and also China’s Peking Opera master. His unparalleled perseverance and sincerity finally moved Mei. In 2001, when Hu was already 30 years old, he eventually switched his study to Peking Opera.

Studying Peking Opera from the very beginning at the late age of 30 is not easy. Now, eight years on, Mei Baojiu is satisfied with his student.

“Hu Wenge was my only student learning the role of male Dan in Peking Opera. He is talented and also very diligent.”

Enjoying wide-spread popularity, Hu Wenge’s appearances can be on both domestic and international stages. Hu Wenge says this kind of popularity is not new to him as he enjoyed it when he was a pop singer.

It is hard to imagine this tender and feminine voice is Hu Wenge’s, but it is. With this unique voice and presentation, He Wenge seized wide fame across south China between the 1980s to the 1990s. Hu Wenge says his performances were blockbuster events back then.

“It is hard to talk about my life. The fact is, when I graduated from the Qinqiang Opera School, China’s reform and opening-up policy had started. So I also opened up a new life as a pop singer. I was the first person to try tomato and my creative making-up as a woman and singing as a woman was novel to try at that time. I was a hit then and many singers of my generation feared performing together with me as they couldn’t rival my popularity.”

However, Hu Wenge adds that he suffered as equally as he enjoyed the fame and the fortune.

“I always felt people’s eyes on me. I could see fondness and appreciation in some, but never respect. They called me many terrible things. I was hurt a lot spiritually, more than any other singer.”

Hu Wenge made up his mind to follow his idol, Mei Lanfang, from the very beginning. Now he is on a road he dreamed of and on a stage which brings him more success and respect.

Hue Wenge

This is a dynamic production with nice sets and a lot of actors!

Some personal viewing notes:

The antics of the 2 chous at 25 minutes are a highlight for me; you don’t see chous singing and dancing very often, and these two are excellent. This verges on early American vaudeville. Anyway, I asked for an orange and purple hat for my birthday just like the one worn by one of the clowns, but never got one.

A painful-looking and rather gratuitous tumble at 41:00 or so… Careful with your back, young man!

I wasn’t crazy about the speeded-up aria at 1:01. It was a bit all over the place.

I’m not sure what the bad guy pantomimed at 1:13 before exiting? I think hiding a sack of money, but I’m not sure.

Gorgeous embroidery on the lady’s costume at 1:19, but the romance takes so long… Whew!

The two jinghu players play their instrument on the same side but wear their watches on different hands. Interesting.

In conclusion, to me it needs to be said, it seems everyone is more interesting in this opera than Xie Yaohuan and Yuan Xingjian. The two leads did not thrill me. I was sort of hoping to see an ending featuring them scream in abject terror as they are buried alive, instead there is very nice breezy music in the final scene that basically made me hungry for dim sum. The opera ends with a swipe from the boat scene in the White Snake.

I guess it’s time for a snack.

 

Click here to download the video. File size is 1.2 GB and file format is .mkv, playable in VLC.

 

And enjoy that Empress!

;)