Not sure what happened at the Peking Opera but it involved stage combat, butterfly feelers and intrusive ushers

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.


This video doesn’t exist


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?


How we got to Beijing: train from Xi’an.
Where we slept: Nostalgia Hotel Beijing- Yonghe Lama Temple. Price: €44 for a double. Recommended: yes.



  1. I can’t run the videos…probably down to me…but never mind! The whole thing comes to life through your words.
    Who would be an usher in a Chinese opera house…perpetual motion a necessity.
    I remember trying to watch a televised production of Chinese opera – probably BBC – when young, but the dogs objected to the reedy singing and as they howled louder they won.

    I like the idea of work spouses…in that case I would have been a polyandrist as I had more than a few male colleagues with whom, commuting time being what it was, I seemed to spend more time than with the real deal. And, of course, being men, they had obsessions…cricket and wine, of course…then Visigothic architecture, James Joyce, the ‘real’ monarchs of Europe, for which read Stuarts not Hanoverians and unpronounceable German princelings…steam trains, railway timetables with competitions as to how rapidly you could visit all English cathedral towns by train…you get the idea…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The relationship with your work spouse is an important one and requires investment, since as you point out, you end up spending more time with them than the real deal. I’ll take your former work hubby who is obsessed with Visigothic architecture—now that’s a topic worthy of many office conversations.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I never managed to sit through a whole opera; actually even your videos were too much for me. I often used to come across little performances in the park, normally the audience had an average age of 90.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I believe the reason the music is so piercing is that the operas were originally intended to be performed outside and that way the opera could be heard by a crowd.

      We saw a lot of line dancing, tai chi, and once shadow puppets, in the parks but alas no opera.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. When I was growing up in Hong Kong in the 50s Chinese opera was occasionally broadcast on tv, watched by our amah, and I would stay for a while drinking it in and trying to make sense of it.

    I never had any idea what was going on other than it was something mythical or legendary, but the sounds and the visuals stuck with me, particularly the percussive sounds (seemingly almost improvised, as you say), the piercing high-pitched singing and the swirl of colourful costumes.

    Personally I preferred the more lyrical chamber music with one voice accompanied by a Chinese flute, bowed string instrument or plucked dulcimer — much more expressive and less bombastic than the opera.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. When was the last time you were in Hong Kong? The change there since the 50’s must seem incredible!

      Now I have to go back to China to hear that lovely sounding chamber music you mention.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I left Hong Kong when I was ten, in 1958 (sixty years ago!) now but sadly have never been back, though I admit it would be nice to visit and see how much it has changed yet still remained at heart the same.

        This video is the kind of thing I remember hearing played on radios when out wandering — we could in those days! — and though it’s rather long it’s quite nice to have playing in the background. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Claudia · · Reply

    Great cultural experience—for the audience as much as the performance. Maybe it’s kind of like attending a Major League baseball game? Maybe everybody knows the story? It’s nice you have a work husband to broaden your horizons. (My work husband is the same guy as my actual husband but he’ll do!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh certainly the audience knows the story. There was an adorable grampa whispering the plot to his granddaughter and most people were humming along.

      I think you’ve found an excellent work husband! I am quite fond of my work husband and HOB has a work wife, also of more than two decades. We know and like each other’s work spouses so I imagine the next step—-complicated, but not impossible—would be to have our respective work spouses meet each other.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. The story line is legendary…sounds like Fu Mulan..the Disney film version. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I should tell my youngest nieces this—they love all things Disney and maybe that could be a gateway for them to appreciate Chinese opera.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Nemorino · · Reply

    54 years ago I used to listen to Vietnamese opera on the radio.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Foreshadowing the opera nerd you would one day become….. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Nemorino · · Reply

    Yes, but it took a while.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I noticed some pre-teen girls in China with very ornate headgear. It seems that these were part of the costumes in the Opera. Apparently it is quite the fashion statement for 6 year olds.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I certainly hope they weren’t wearing opera head gear—-a girl that size would blow away in the wind with all those boingy things on her head!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s exactly what they were wearing: boingy things

        Liked by 1 person

  9. I quite like the costumes, especially the flowing beards and long hair. Have you seen similar hirsute folks there?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Almost everyone in China was clean shaven. However, we did see a lot of strange eyebrows that seemed stenciled on. These would fit in on an opera stage, I think.

      Liked by 1 person

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