There’s an anecdote in Beijing Opera circles about Mei Lanfang. Once he mentioned to one of his disciples, Yan Huizhu (言慧珠), how suitable the role of Esmeralda would be for her. However, Yan Huizhu never had the opportunity to rehearse The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, and Esmeralda turned into a long-cherished dream-role of Mei school followers.
Yielding under the constant pressure from high-profile Mei school qingyi Shi Yihong, a young dramatist, Feng Gang (冯钢) finally adapted the famous novel to a Bejing Opera, titled Notre Dame. Victor Hugo’s character Esmeralda appears in the jingju version as Aiya, portrayed by Shi Yihong, of course.
Quasimodo’s name was changed to Chounu (lit. “ugly slave”), and promising young actor Dong Hongsong, who not so long ago was honored with Shanghai’s Foundation for Talents of Literature and Art Award, got the opportunity to play the role.
No traditional jingju undergarment needed
As hopeless procrastinator I haven’t finished this post until now, but I don’t mind it at all, I tell you why.
The first version of this play I saw was a 2010 staging that Bertrand sent to me several months ago. He knew well I’ll be very enthusiastic, because the gullible and lecherous Tian Hao is played by my idol, Shanghai’s leading xiaosheng Jin Xiquan. For a change, in the video Tian Hao is laosheng role, so Jin Xiquan uses his normal voice.
In the meantime I downloaded another edition of this play, titled 《情殇钟楼》, Short Lived Love of the Bell Tower, performed by the same cast during the 6th China Peking Opera Art Festival a few months ago. (You can find several great pictures of this particular show here.) In this other version Tian Hao is xiaosheng role, so this time you won’t escape Jin Xiquan’s incredible falsetto! *evil laugh*
However, you surely will like Dong Hongsong in both editions! In the first version his make-up is more life-like, in the second version he wears a typical jingju face paint:
And just to show you how lovely Dong Hongsong looks without Quasimodo make-up, here he is with gingerbread-man pillow:
Though disguised as an unattractive person, Dong Hongsong’s innocent face perfectly reflects Chounu’s inner qualities. Ugly outside, beautiful inside. Contrary, Tian Hao is good-looking and sweet-talking, but fully rotten inside. Jin Xiquan admitted that it wasn’t really a carnival to keep that cunning smile on his face all along, and play this “bad, no, very bad” character.
The story follows Victor Hugo’s novel, of course there are a few differences, for example Aiya isn’t hanged at the end, but looses her life during the battle between the outlaws and Tian Hao’s forces.
Shi Yihong excels in martial action, we could see her skills lately in Female Generals of the Yang Family and this interesting Tale of the White Snake edition too, I think these lively and action-packed roles go well with her shiny and optimistic personality.
I don’t know much about Fan Yongliang, but he’s undoubtedly a versatile person. He learned Yang school laosheng role previously, later accepted Zhang Xuejin as master and learned Ma school art, also was member of the 2008-2009 Traditional Art of Zhou Xinfang research and study class. I’ve seen him in two other roles previously, once in a Ma-classic, Si Jinshi (Four Successful Palace Graduates) and once together with Chen Shaoyun in a Qi school play, Wulong Yuan (Black Dragon Courtyard), but I admit frankly that I didn’t really pay attention. I will correct this in the near future and report back.
Fan Yongliang in the role of the evil archdeacon
Tian Hao, for obvious reasons, doesn’t pay attention. Big mistake.
京剧《圣母院》 Shengmu Yuan (Notre Dame)
Click here to download the video.
Length: 1:57:32 File size: 586MB, 720×448 Extension: MKV
Shanghai Grand Theater, 2010-06-21
京剧《情殇钟楼》 Qing Shang Zhonglou (Love of the Bell Tower)
Download videos: Part1 | Part2
Length: 0:58:53, 01:07:24 File size: 360MB, 413MB; 480×360 Extension: MP4
Luojiashan Theatre, Wuhan, 2011-11-13
Aiya (Esmeralda): Shi Yihong (史依弘)
Chounu (Quasimodo): Dong Hongsong (董洪松)
Archdeacon Luo (Frollo): Fan Yongliang (范永亮)
Tian Hao (Captain Phoebus): Jin Xiquan (金喜全)
King of the Beggars (Clopin): Qi Baoyu (齐宝玉)
Judge: Ren Guangping (任广平)
Old innkeeper lady: Yu Wei (虞伟)
The little man: Li Jianpu (李建普)
“Yihong, you gained weight!”
Note Jin Xiquan’s fashionable “Princess” T-shirt… I think I saw that before on Xiong Mingxia (his wife).
Parental guidance needed.
Dress rehearsal. Aren’t those little gypsy drums adorable?
Sources: hotcinema.com, mplife.com, focus.pptv.com
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.
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!
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.