A to Z Abroad: Opera in Beijing

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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.

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Part of the A to Z Challenge!

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c.b.w. 2013

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31 thoughts on “A to Z Abroad: Opera in Beijing

  1. Thanks for the information. At Wesleyan University, in my town, the World Music Department puts on many events, complete with descriptive programs to help us Westerners find our way. The shadow puppets are truly stunning, for example, esp when you understand the plots and background. Thanks for this!

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  2. How incredible! The costumes and make-up are absolutely stunning! I knew that you’d traveled through Europe, but I had no idea that you’d been to China as well. You really are a world traveler! : )

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  3. K.Jacqleene

    Quite extraordinary. In my surrounding area, occasionally The Kennedy Center in D.C. will host The China National Peking Opera Company. Wonderful to see if you remember to keep an eye on their calendar. The Washington Chu Shan Chinese Opera Institute in Rockville, MD is another within traveling distance for a nice weekend trip to enjoy the Chinese theater. The director is Mr. Zhu Chu Shan, a renowned Peking Opera playwright and director originally from Shanghai, China. Mr. Zhu endeavors to present Chinese opera to new and diverse audiences, innovating old genres to make Chinese opera accessible and enjoyable to people of all backgrounds. This December they will be doing something a little different and presenting, Halmet, A full-length Chinese opera based on the story of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I’m hoping to be able to make it for this.

    Oh, but to be in China, surrounded by the culture and experience this in their land must feel surreal. (Parden the use of the word surreal. I find it quite overused in every interview by every hollywood star. This is the first time I have used it in a sentence but thought it appropriate.)

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    • In Phoenix, we have a Chinese Cultural Center and they do all sorts of performances, but nothing like what I saw in China! I’m sure the The Kennedy Center puts on some amazing shows and I’d love see one there someday. 🙂

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  4. You’ve hit something dear to me. My Chinese grandmother would blast her radio in her tiny house in Hawaii whenever the Chinese station would play a recording of an Opera. To this day, it reminds me of her. My husband and I will when the moment strikes us will run threw the house screaming and gesturing like Chinese actors. I know we’re silly and crazy. But try it, takes away all inhibition after that.

    Thank you for another wonderful post.

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  5. I am chuckling to myself, thinking of people who don’t go to the opera in the US because it’s too hard to understand when sung in a different language (with subtitles.) Imagine if they were confronted with music based on a different tonal scale, mask and costume colors, face paint, movement, and mime in order to understand the plot. I enjoyed this window into what looks to be a fascinating art form, one that I was totally unfamiliar with.

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    • There were quite a few people (I was traveling with) who could not get into the performance for the reasons you’ve listed above. Admittedly, I was a little out of my comfort zone at the beginning too. But once you let go and just take it all in, it becomes an amazing experience. 🙂

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  6. We heard Chinese Opera during Expo (at least I think that was when) but I confess I just couldn’t get into the sound and story. Gamelan music at Denpasar airport affects me the same way 😉

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