Puzzling Over The Peking Opera

I am not one to miss out.  How could I have never been to The Peking Opera?  I love the arts and have actively aspired to learn more about Chinese cultural traditions since I first taught at the Fuyang Bureau of Education twelve years ago.  At my daughter’s suggestion, I jumped at the chance to buy us tickets to see The Peking National Opera Company in Taipei .  The National Arts Centre is impressive and very fitting for viewing this ‘national treasure’.  We settled into our plush, red velvet seats, ready to be inducted into this art form.

At break time, the women beside us was thrilled that we returned after the break.

“But are you actually enjoying it?” she inquired.  We talked of the obvious strengths and Taiwan’s role in preserving this art form as part of their unique cultural history.

By the end of the performance, the woman beside us had been moved to tears, as had many others in the audience.  People jumped to their feet with a rousing standing ovation for the performers.  My daughter and I looked at each other and cautiously joined in with the polite response of good Canadians.  We clearly understood that we were missing a big part of the picture.

It was easy to appreciate the elaborate costumes and navigate the plot, even though the performance was in Mandarin.  It almost felt like a puppet show with stock characters and stylistic conventions like hand shaking that allow the audience to follow the storyline.  Stock characters that occur across different stories include:

sheng – the gentleman; dan – woman; jing – rough man; chou – clown with the mask

The talented musicians sat in a large box on stage playing traditional instruments like the erhu and allowing the emotion of the story to unfold.  The mime, dance, and acrobatics commanded attention.  The war scenes were a thing of beauty with the complex choreography and perfect timing.  We weren’t sure if the general was dead or imprisoned. If his love came to tell of his release from unjust captivity or visit him in the afterlife?   It didn’t really matter to our overall understanding of honour, strife and resolution.

It was the vocal performance that proved to be the biggest challenge to my daughter and I.  It was so far outside of anything that we had experienced before and defined as beautiful.  Particularly the very valued and extremely high vocal range of the dan was met with reluctance on my daughter’s part and a stifled cringe on my part.  And yet the response of the people around us revealed that we are outside of a big secret.  Something meaningful had transpired and the meaning remained elusive to us.  What is the trick to unlocking the mystery?  What background experiences or knowledge is required to understand the significance and beauty of the performance?

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