WONDROUS WORLD OF CHINESE OPERA

Welcome to the wondrous, exciting and extraordinary world of Chinese opera. It is a magical world of enchantment that is truly unique. This may be a first and unusual experience for many of you. We hope that it will be one that you will always remember and cherish.

Chinese opera is an experience quite different from Western opera in that it combines singing, dancing, acrobatics, clowning, pantomime and martial arts. In essence, it is “total” theatre. Chinese opera is older than Western opera. It has a heritage of over 5000 years. Many operas date back to the Tan dynasty. Just about everything about classical Chinese opera is distinctive—the music, acting, gestures, makeup, and magnificent costumes.

CHINESE OPERAS ARE USUALLY WRITTEN FROM HISTORICAL EVENTS POETRY, FOLKLORE, LEGENDS & MYTHOLOGIES OF IMMORTAL GODS AND GODDESSES

An opera student must study history, poetry, and literature in addition to basic reading, writing and ‘rithmetic. An opera student must also practice physical endurance through martial arts and acrobatic exercise, along with acting and singing. As in “total” theatre, there is “total” physical and mental endurance. Contrary to what most people believe, Chinese opera is written with very high standards.

Prior to the early 19th century, females were forbidden to perform Chinese opera. They were taboo and considered bad luck. Males, as seen in the movie “Farewell My Concubine” portrayed female roles. The most famous and revered female impersonator was Mui Lan Fong.

CHINESE OPERA IS STEEPED IN SYMBOLISM, TRADITIONAL GESTURES, COSTUME, & MAKEUP

The headdress worn signifies the role that is being portrayed. The audience must often use their imagination to follow the plot by conceiving mentally mountains being climbed, rivers being crossed, riders on horseback, and performers stepping over thresholds, and more. Pay close attention to hand gestures and movements, they help to understand the plot. There are 107 different hand movements, each with its own meaning.

Chinese opera is probably one of the most difficult performing arts to learn, train and master. It requires many, many years of training to attain a level of perfection. Students begin Chinese opera training as early as age eight. Disciplined traditional training for the art requires a minimum of 6-7 vigorous years.

In a traditional Opera school in China, a student’s day begins at 5:30 a.m. Before breakfast there is 20-30 minutes of vocal practice at dawn. This aids in vocal projection, breathing and air control, and to also cultivate the falsetto voice, expand their vocal volume to sing forcefully and distinctly. Microphones were non-existent in the old days. Today, vocal lessons are still taught in the traditional manner.

After vocal exercise is 1½ hours of physical endurance exercise through stretching, running, tumbling and somersaults. This activity is to loosen, stretch and strengthen muscles. After exercise is breakfast, followed by two hours of classroom studies. Lessons in stage drama and movements are also part of the daily routine, with practice sessions of 3-5 hours. In the afternoon is a one-hour rest period.

For each opera, pupils must first learn the music, how to sing the songs, followed by dialogue and acting. A single opera requires about 3-4 months training. Most pupils are able to perform a dozen or more operas when they graduate from opera school.

It’s important for everyone to learn their lines well. If “Sifu” is unhappy that the dialogue was not perfect, severe punishment could follow. In days of old, scripts were often distributed the evening before the next day’s performance. Sometimes there would be last minute changes to the script or performance schedule.

IN CANTONESE OPERA IT IS RARE THAT AN OPERA IS REPEATED TWO DAYS IN SUCCESSION

A different opera is performed each day. This requires vast memory retention and physical stamina. Unlike “Phantom of the Opera” which had over 2000 repeated performances daily in San Francisco for over five years.

Unlike Western stage, the Chinese stage is simple in form. It is the duty of the performers to activate the audience’s imagination. Audience interaction is essential. A performer entering from the left side of the stage (stage right for the performer) represents entrance from the outside/exterior, and stage left entrance (audience’s right) generally means entrance from the interior or another area.

We hope this brief introduction of Chinese opera has enhanced and inspired an appreciation for a wonderful and magnificent performing art. Welcome to the mystical and wondrous world of Chinese opera. Thank you for sharing this classical and unique performing art experience with us.