Although they are accustomed to the sight of gappy rows of seats back home, from some online chatting my impression was that the Chinese Beijing Opera performers in Sicily were a bit disappointed in the first two days. (However they really enjoyed the sightseeing and amusements offered by the beautiful Sicilian seaside and hotel bars. Below: Wu Haoyi poses in the cool ocean breeze. Zhu Qiang plays Lorelei.)
I’m convinced that the main cause of the initial lacklustre attendance was poor advertising — the crushing heat in the theatre and free admittance scheme only compounded this issue.
On the third evening, I expected more or less the same amount of people as before, but to my surprise and great pleasure, visitors arrived in hoards to the theatre, filling up all floor levels. Theatre staff had a hard time getting all the people seated, a little girl was sitting on the lap of her mother, and a couple couldn’t find seats next to each other.
On the picture below, in the middle you can see the most sympathetic duo in the audience, this girl and her man came every day to see Beijing Opera, they were very enthusiastic, the girl always wore a qipao:
Possibly this sudden twist was the result of hearsay spreading through the streets of Catania (or television report buzz).
This evening’s program was a Beijing Opera highlights performance that consisted of four segments from possibly the most well-known plays in the West. They had multiple advantages: they were neither too long nor dialog-packed.
The first was a well-known, yet unique martial play, At the Crossroads《三岔口》. It’s impossible to get bored with the two sympathetic protagonists fighting in the dark, heroic and funny at the same time. Of course, you have to imagine it’s night-time and completely dark in the room.
In the beginning the audience couldn’t resist teehee-ing while watching Ren Tanghui and Liu Lihua, but later as the combat got fiercer and fiercer, they started to yell out loud whenever they saw something spectacular.
Too bad I couldn’t make photos, at this point I was closely monitored by a theatre pit-bull. In the first part of the Sicily posts, you can see Zhang Qingsong and Zhou Enxu on the picture with the bishop.
After we check marked wuchou and wusheng on the role representation list, there came the huashan: a Mei school classic, The Drunken Concubine《贵妃醉酒》. When you start to listen to Beijing Opera, you are fated to meet this gem in a week or sooner. I bet if you give it a go in the Search box, it will pop up several results.
Trivia question: From this selection of palace maids, how many are boys? I couldn’t decide.
Sicily audiences were apparently very fond of the idea that a beautiful woman deliberately gets tipsy. When Zhang Huifang as Guifei declared that this night she will get drunk, the audience was giggling. Later when servants took turns, offering different kinds of wines, and finally all ended up on Guifei’s table, they were already laughing. Naturally the “leaning back to empty a glass of wine” scene was also a hit.
The program was compiled really carefully, the next short play offered something interesting again. In the Costumes posts, we briefly discussed Mei Lanfang’s costume creations, the ancient-style dress and the ”cloud terrace” clothes. In the next segment, Tan Mingxin (谭茗心) performed Heavenly Goddess Showering Flowers《天女散花》, wearing one of these “Mei Lanfang revisionist costumes”, creating stunning visual effects with long, rainbow-colored ribbons.
Mei Lanfang is well-known for his innovative spirit. He experimented with stage lighting, set design and costumes, even “inventing” a new type of role, the previously mentioned huashan. Zhou Xinfang raised prop usage to a whole new level, and Ma Lianliang designed a complete series of “fancified” costumes for the laosheng role – however not every innovation proved to be successful: have I already mentioned those square-shaped banners? Recently I saw two old photos with both Ma Lianliang and Zhou Xinfang wearing full kao (armor) with banners attached – but all the flags were rectangle-shaped, really a sore sight, no wonder this experiment quickly sunk into oblivion! Only time will decide which of the new ideas and approaches put forth nowadays will prove worthy to be kept. Obviously there will be some changes that will dishearten some opera lovers, but audiences (and market demand) ultimately will decide.
And now we arrived to the highlight of the evening, driving the already jolly Sicilian audience absolutely crazy. I haven’t mentioned this before, but during this evening – for the first time – spectators took the advice given by the host, i.e. to yell, “Hao!” when you like something! Applaud when something spectacular happens! Of course the westerners always did this at the most inappropriate times, such as at the start of an aria or dialog, or at moments when full silence was needed… However I’m sure the performers didn’t mind, on the contrary, I think they really appreciated these efforts.
As it was written in the sky (or as Hungarians say less poetically, “Bejött a papírforma” (the official paperwork has arrived), the biggest hit of the show was Sun Wukong, fighting the eighteen arhats.
Wang Wenzeng (王文增), who by interesting coincidence had his birthday that day, was playing the Monkey King, and he did a good job. He was funny, naughty, acrobatic, fun to watch. The arhats and “animal” performers: oh my, they were all hilarious! The audience was laughing hard, they especially liked the thin as a match luohan, claiming himself to be very powerful. On the picture below, you can see him on the very right:
I don’t know who the somewhat overfed tiger was, but I found him very cute.
Yu school laosheng Wang Peiyu never performs in newly written plays or model works. You can depict Yu Shuyan with one word: literati. Way back when, he suggested to Li Shaochun to give up “monkey business” and concentrate on other things, but he resisted. This caused some friction between master and student, but most likely I’m not alone in the opinion that Li Shaochun’s is the most scintillating Monkey King in Beijing Opera history, enchanting both mainland and overseas audiences. It would have been a pity to abandon this role.
All in all, this evening was a full success. Spectators stood up and applauded for a long time, yelling Bravo! and Hao!, Wang Wenzeng was obviously the audience favorite. I hope this warm welcome somewhat made it up to him for celebrating birthday far away from home, family and friends.
Surprisingly, this time I didn’t lose my way in the city again. When I arrived back to my safe and friendly little room, I came online and got to know that Ye Shaolan, who is pretty much one of my idols, is also in Italy, and was personally supervising the staging of Lü Bu and Diaochan.
Naturally I got rather upset that I missed the opportunity to meet him, but upon some whining I got the hint that the day before he was watching Li Hongtu’s production from second floor middle. This information proved to be very valuable next day, resulting in a successful hunt - Bertrand already made a post about this “big catch” of mine.
Well, at least for me it was big!
I don’t promise the final part of my trip report will arrive with light speed, but I’ll work on it. To compensate you for waiting, I’ll post a video in that: some snaky snack.
So, stay tuned…