A to Z Abroad: Opera in Beijing


While in China, I had the unique experience of attending a performance of the Beijing Opera. To Western ears, this art form may sound a bit strange at first, but an open mind can turn a series of odd sounds into something really beautiful.

The musical accompaniment is decidedly different from the Western model of opera in that it relies more on the rhythm of percussion and has a smaller emphasis on stringed instruments. In addition to music, Beijing Opera includes a combination of vocals, mime, dance, and acrobatics. Instead of utilizing elaborate set-pieces, the stage is purposely sparse, so it becomes the job of the actors to portray the illusion of place and action. For example, if part of the story involves rowing a boat, the actors mimic the movements of rowing a boat.

Beijing Opera – Movement is everything!
Photo by: c.b.w. 2005

Actors are judged on the beauty of their movements more so than creating realism. Each movement has meaning and helps the audience decipher the plot of the opera. The music also aids in this by increasing and decreasing tempo. Ultimately, the entire performance is rooted in symbolism. I can personally attest to the effectiveness of these techniques. Despite the language barrier I was able to follow the story quite easily.

Beijing Opera – Using the power of color to tell a story
Photo by: c.b.w. 2005

Prior to the show, I had the privelge of going backstage to watch the performers put on the elaborate make-up and costumes that are essential to the pageantry presented onstage.

Beijing Opera – The elaborate art of face painting
Photo by: c.b.w. 2005

Masks plays an integral role in Beijing Opera. Each color has a different meaning and is used to signal the audience to a character’s role in the story or the emotional state of the character.

  • White – sinister, evil crafty or suspicious. Usually associated with the villain.
  • Green – impulsive, violent, no self-control
  • Red – brave and loyal
  • Black – rough, fierce or impartial
  • Yellow – ambitious, fierce, cool-headed
  • Blue – steadfast

Face make-up derives from the ancient warrior tradition of painting the face prior to battle. Often those with painted faces portray warriors in the story.

The bright colors and artistry of Beijing Opera is a feast for the eyes, but it also provides a unique insight into the heritage and cultural values of the Chinese people.

– – –

Part of the A to Z Challenge!


– – –

c.b.w. 2013