It’s called Chinese opera in the West, but the Chinese word for the venerable art form is Xiqu, and there are more than 300 different derivations. While this distinctive brand of musical theater does share certain characteristics with Western opera, including highly trained vocalists, the two art forms are also extremely different.
Chicago audiences will have an opportunity to experience Xiqu when the China National Peking Opera Company appears Feb. 10 at Symphony Center Presents’ fifth annual Chinese New Year Celebration. Also featured will be the Hubei Chime Bells National Chinese Orchestra, which performs on an array of traditional instruments including precise replicas of 2,500-year-old metal and stone chime bells that were discovered four decades ago in the tomb of a Bronze Age Chinese ruler.
The concert is part of a multi-week series of citywide activities and programs marking the arrival of the Year of the Pig on Chinese calendars. Symphony Center Presents, the presenting arm of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, once again is collaborating with the Chicago Consulate of the People’s Republic of Chicago and Choose Chicago (formerly the Chicago Convention & Tourism Bureau) for this musical and theatrical celebration.
Beijing opera or Jingju, as it is known in Chinese, is the most widespread version of Xiqu, and it has served as the “unofficial national form” since the latter part of the 19th century, said Elizabeth Wichmann-Walczak, a recently retired professor of theater and dance in the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, and author of the book Listening to Theatre: The Aural Dimension of Beijing Opera. As such, there is at least one Jingju company in every province of China and in most major cities. “So there are scores of Jingju companies, Beijing opera companies, if not hundreds in the country,” she said.
Jingju constitutes what Wichmann-Walczak calls total theater, requiring four major skills, including speech, acting/dancing and singing. “A Jingju performer is trained in singing as rigorously as a Western opera singer, although the demands and the techniques are different, because the sound is very different,” she said. In Jingju, works are not set in a particular key. The goal is to sing as high in pitch as possible in an aesthetically pleasing way. So if the voice is in good form one day, a singer might perform in the key of E. And the next day, if the singer is struggling with a cold, he or she might choose to sing in E flat or even D. Whatever key is chosen, the orchestra is expected to follow along accordingly. “Obviously, this goes by the leading performers, and the supporting performers just have to roll with it.”
In addition, the performers must be highly skilled in martial arts and acrobatics. In fact, Wichmann-Walczak points out that early kung-fu films from Hong Kong featured Jingju artists. “I don’t know of any other form of performance in the world that is so demanding of its performers,” she said. “It requires such a range, breadth, depth of serious training and performance skills.”
Adding to the complexity, each performer is trained in a particular role category. “These are not stock characters,” Wichmann-Walczak said. “Instead, both male and female performers can play male and female roles and anyone of any age can be trained to play characters of different ages.” Performers use melodic patterns and vocal timbres to telegraph characters’ ages and genders.
The main soloists coming with the China National Beijing Opera Company are two of the nation’s most famous Jingju artists. Yu Kuizhi is the leading performer in China of older male roles — someone married or at least 30 years old. “The older male characters use what in Chinese is call the large voice or the natural voice, whereas performers who play young male characters use — I think it’s gorgeous — a stylized falsetto, and their voices go in and out of that falsetto.”
Wichmann-Walczak, who has seen Yu in at least 100 productions in China, has high praise for him. As he will in Chicago, Yu often performs with Li Shengsu, probably the leading female performer of Mei Lanfang-style young female roles. (Mei Lanfang [1894-1961] was the most famous performer of young Chinese female roles in the 20th century.) Female characters are considered young unless they are so old that they have to walk slightly bent over with a staff — basically anyone 70 or over.
Within the role categories are different styles that were originated by famed performers of the past. “It could be 100 years ago or it could be 20 years ago,” Wichmann-Walczak said. Contemporary performers either become masters of those accepted styles or in certain cases develop styles of their own. “Mei Lanfang is a beautiful style, but it takes some getting used to because it is definitely falsetto,” she said. “Young female roles are all falsetto, and it’s a particular style of falsetto.”
The China National Beijing Opera Company will present scenes from three Jingju works that loosely translate as Divergence, Palace of Eternal Life and Uproar in Heaven. The last of which is about a Monkey King creating an uproar in heaven. In the original version, the monkey loses to the forces of Buddhist heaven, but after the emergence of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the ending was changed. In the revised and now standard version, the monkey triumphs, suggesting the power of the people.
The popularity of Xiqu has waned in China primarily because of the relatively sudden onslaught of modernization. In the United States, theater was the major form of entertainment before it was overtaken by films and television, which evolved gradually over the 20th century. “In China, this was all packed into about 15 years,” Wichmann-Walczak said, “just because of the historical sequences of the wars in China in the ‘30s and ‘40s and then the nature of the original socialist government and its organization of society.”
But in vogue or not, Xiqu remains an important and ever-changing link to the country’s rich artistic past, and major companies like China National Peking Opera Company serve as vibrant cultural ambassadors.