Any of you have a work spouse? I’ve had one for 20 years; I call him the International Man of Mystery. Now you’d think after 20 years I’d know a lot about IMOM, but he is one seriously cagey dude. Try asking IMOM a question like “How was your weekend?” and you’re going to get nothing but crickets. But still, I’ve learned to communicate through his favorite topics of conversation. For example, IMOM loves talking about book translations. If, let’s say, I were to slyly drop a little question about book translations such as “I was thinking of re-reading War and Peace, are there any good new translations out?” then we’ve got a subject worthy of a day’s conversation.
My other go-to conversation starter is Asian culture, which IMOM specializes in: everything from Korean soap operas to Vietnamese Phở restaurants. For over a decade I’ve been saying to him “You know what I really want to do? See a Peking opera” and we’ve discussed in great detail what that might be like. I wasn’t making this up either—I’ve have been antsy to see an authentic Peking opera. And guess what? HOB and I went to see one in Beijing this spring.
Of course, for an experience so long anticipated, I did a lot of research. I wanted to see an authentic opera, not a performance pimped out for tourists. I decided on the Chang’an Grand Theater because it has a reputation for presenting traditional Peking Opera. HOB and I visited the theater to buy tickets shortly after arriving in Beijing. A kind and patient woman in the box office helped us buy tickets despite our inability to speak Chinese (I don’t need to remind you that box office and visitor services staff are the real heroes of most of our trips, do I?) She got us seats in the balcony for a inexpensive price.
On the day of the performance we got to the opera house early so I had time to review my notes on Peking opera character archetypes (those are in the binder I’m holding on my lap). It’s a good thing I was prepared too because we had absolutely no knowledge of the opera’s plot—in fact we didn’t even know the title of the show. There were subtitles, which you can see in green text on either side of the stage, but they were in Chinese.
The performance had live musical accompaniment which I believe was entirely improvised. The musicians were seated on stage but just inside the wings where we could barely see them. There was a stringed instrument with a high pitch and a rattling percussive instrument with a sound like castanets. A third percussive instrument had a peculiar tone; when I was a kid I lived in front a small lake where people used to ice fish in the winter and the opera’s drum sounded like a fisherman breaking a hole in the ice—keeuuuungh, keeuuuungh, keeuuuungh. The singing was reedy and piercing (in fact, my only disappointment in the performance was that it was amplified, which seemed unnecessary).
The opera’s audience and ushers were almost as entertaining as the opera. The couple in front of us shared a thermos of tea while ushers flitted back and forth refilling tea cups in the more expensive seats, temporarily blocking our view. A young guy massaged his date’s back in time to the music. One man loudly spoke on his cell phone, not stopping when an outraged usher hustled him out of the theater. Audience members walked in and out of the balcony door to take phone calls, invariable leaving the door slightly ajar and causing the intrusive ushers to sprint ostentatiously over to properly close the door. Everyone chatted, cleared their sinuses and made cell phone videos without shame. While I found all this business distracting, I was relieved to find Chinese people breaking rules—in an authoritarian culture even small acts of insubordination matter.
Though recording was banned, the audience held up their phones in clear view of the ushers, who made no attempt to stop them. I decided there was no reason to restrain myself either, though HOB glared at me in stern disapproval. I have no skill whatsoever in videotaping (as is clearly in evidence in the above recording) so HOB gave in and made the much more well composed video below.
In my video you can hear a bit of singing from the young woman in the red costume. She was also an elegant actress who made many graceful, stylized gestures with her hands.
Oh man did this opera ever have some super stage combat! Catch a bit of in HOB’s video above (and a closer look at the exquisite costumes and makeup). Later on in the opera there was an all-out stage battle with much twirling and swinging of fabrics. The male characters wore platform shoes which they lifted out from under their robes on angled, stiff legs. The middle-aged female lead had long flowing sleeves that she would unfurl dramatically and then scoop up-up-up her arms. Several characters had bizarre butterfly feelers or stacked balls on their heads that they bounced along in time to the music. I had no idea what was going on but I sure did love the whole thing.
Normally I return from a trip and my office mate of 20 years hardly acknowledges that I’ve been gone. This time, though, IMOM greeted me with an excited “WOB! How was China? How was the Peking Opera?!” I showed him the program and explained that we didn’t know what we’d seen. He kept the program and tracked down a Chinese intern who could translate it. The intern explained that we had seen Mu Guiying Takes Command, an opera about a legendary female general from the Song Dynasty.
A few new Peking-style propaganda operas were written during the cultural revolution, but these days I don’t think there are many contemporary operas coming out of Beijing. As much as I enjoyed seeing the traditional opera, I’d like to think there are also new operas being produced in China. For any of you Chinese composers out there, may I suggest writing a situation comedy-style opera about a pair of work spouses—one quite mysterious, the other addicted to travel—set in a museum in Chicago. Who wouldn’t want a ticket for that?