As discussed, one time my reading teacher spent a good portion of a lesson demonstrating the nuanced differences between the vocal styles of China’s various operas. Major as this was, I’d be a liar to announce that I could recognise these distinctions. The only way to further my understanding of this culture dominating genre would be to actually go and see one.
The most popular, or, to the Western eye, most recognisable form of Chinese opera is the Peking Opera (Beijing Opera to those of us born after 1949). Beijing Opera formed and rose to popularity in the late 18th Century, at about the same time the craze for Gothic Fiction was really taking Britain by storm. It does not sound like Wagner, but does sound very Chinese, and in the past commonly used young male actors to portray female roles, just like Shakespeare.
British literary comparisons aside, the opera I went to see was called 大雷雨, or Thunderstorms. What an evocative, not entirely un-Gothic title (no more literary comparisons from now on, promise). I approached the opera in anticipation of a brooding, saucy, maybe slightly trashy affair.
But first, to the theatre. We had some debate about what we should wear; I would be coming straight from class, for which I tend to dress like a neglected scarecrow. Also it was really hot. Obviously the opera in the west is the very fanciest of occasions but I a) would never go to class in a tuxedo; b) do not have a tuxedo, or any remotely smart clothes, in Shanghai; c) did not want to be a sweaty mess for a performance that we did not know the length of.
So I took a risk and went casual, which, luckily, was the right call. It turns out that the opera in China is a very relaxed affair. We arrived at 7pm for a 7.15pm start time, and lots of people were hanging around the vestibules in a relaxed fashion. There were no persistent tannoy announcements demanding we take our seats or face the consequences. There wasn’t even a bar.
We made our way into the auditorium – a large, but largely un-fancy affair – and took our seats. To say that we were the only western people in attendance is not white person arrogance; truly this is a pastime most enjoyed by the Chinese, and the Chinese alone. We were stared at a lot, which, given that we’re normally stared at a fair bit anyway is saying something.
At 7.15pm exactly the curtain rose and the orchestra began playing. But at the same time the house lights remained up, and the audience remained chatting to each other. It was so strange; ushers would be wildly gesturing with their pocket torches and shhhhhhing to the point of hoarseness by now if we’d been in the UK. Some people were on their phones; some people were even filming the performance. They’d have been executed by now in the Royal Opera House.
The stage was dressed simply to show a wall with an archway that led on to the courtyard of a fancy, traditional Chinese home. In the courtyard was a tree in pink bloom.
Now is the part of the blog where I tell you about the story of the opera; the riveting twists and turns and broken hearts brought to life by searing music. Except, I can’t. because obviously it’s in Chinese, and has Chinese subtitles, and while I can look at subtitles and occasionally shout out ‘horse!’, ‘woman!’, ‘smelly!’ I’m not quite at the level to fluently follow a fast moving libretto.
What I can do is guess at the plot:
It’s the 19th Century. A wealthy family has two daughters: one is sweet and sort of playful and is clearly the favourite; the other is sassy and rude and knows all the boys. There is also another woman, who is their mother, and their father. Because he has to support three women, even though the fact that he has two daughters is a daily burden on his heart, the father goes away to work for some time on eg an oil rig.
The daughters have a tutor, who is hot. Sassy daughter lasciviously flirts with him, while fun-loving daughter naively flirts with him. Who is worse in this situation? He is clearly used to the handling the attention; he sets the girls some menial task to get them out of his hair because… he is banging their mother. Oh God. They sing to each other for a while, probably about how great it is that father has gone to the rigs and they have all this free time to explore each others’ bodies rather than snatching quickies behind the blossom tree.
So great; what a fortnight it will be! Except… here comes Granny. Granny always knows; she’s not going to let her daughter-in-law disgrace her family’s good name by bonking the tutor. Oh hell no. She sings about this for about 45 minutes.
At the same time sassy daughter seems to receiving some unwanted attention from one of the village boys. Innocent daughter teases her about this (even though she herself is about 21 and isn’t it about time she started to think about snagging a man? It’s 19th Century China?) but sassy daughter isn’t taking any of this shit and tells them both to get fucked.
Granny catches her daughter-in-law at it with the tutor and all hell breaks loose. The tutor is banished and everyone is lachrymose. They all sing about it.
I’m going to honest; this is when we left. It’s not that we weren’t enjoying the experience, it’s just that we’d already watched 90 minutes and had no idea what was happening. Also the music, while initially enchanting and no doubt skillfully delivered by the orchestra and vocalists, gets a bit samey after a while. Also the actress playing Granny was properly milking every syllable. No, that was enough for us; we’d achieved what we set out to achieve.
I’d like to know what happened in the rest of the opera but I can’t find a synopsis of it anywhere. I’m willing to bet that it involved one character dressing up as another character; Granny turning into a dragon; the death of the tutor but after enough time that nobody really cares; mother rediscovering her love for father and him remaining clueless about her infidelity (dragons can’t talk), and both daughters getting married at the same time in an extravagant climax.
If anybody would like to contact me about adapting this masterpiece for the London stage, I can be reached on Twitter.