It's intrigue, it's enchantmentOne of the best-known traditional Chinese opera troupes, Beijing Jingjuyuan, or the Beijing Opera Troupe, will perform part of its repertoire in Seoul this weekend.
The Culture Ministry and the Seoul city government invited the troupe to perform as a way to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Korea. It will be the 42-member group's second trip to Korea -- the performers also came in 1997 to mark the fifth year since the countries set up ties.
Highly formal and symbolic, the Beijing Opera style represents the quintessence of Chinese high culture. It combines orchestral music, speech, song, dance and acrobatics as the performers enact dramas based on the epics, legends and myths of China. The characters' roles, personalities, social ranks and fates are symbolized through elaborate costumes and stylized makeup.
Beijing Opera was traditionally performed with an all-male cast, with men acting out the female roles. But now it uses female actors.
The grand master Mei Lanfang (1894-1961) introduced Beijing Opera to the West and acquired a global reputation back in the 1930s. But it wasn't until 1993 when the world really took notice of the Beijing Opera, because of the movie "Farewell, My Concubine" directed by Chen Kaige. But Beijing Opera dates to even before Mei's time; according to Chinese records, it was devised for the birthday celebration of a Qing Dynasty emperor, Qianlong, in 1790, then was further developed for the royal families. Famous performers based in other regions such as Anhui and Hubei provinces came to play joint productions, and the opera style spread across the country, assimilating many dialects as well as other styles of music.
Today, thousands of dramatic works have been composed that cover the history and literature of China, and they are enjoyed by people from all walks of society, from high-ranking government officials to blue-collar workers. Like Italian opera, Beijing Opera has been performed and appreciated by lovers of opera around the world.
Because of the language barrier, most Beijing Opera productions done outside China are action-oriented or abridged to showcase the art form's varieties. This weekend, the Beijing Opera Troupe will perform, over 80 minutes, four shortened versions of famous Chinese fables: "The King Bids Farewell to His Mistress," "Presenting a Pearl on the Rainbow Bridge" "Monkey King Fights the Eighteen Saints" and "The Crossed Inn." The first piece alone normally runs for 80 minutes, but the shortened version will last 15 minutes.
To help audiences learn more about Beijing Opera, the organizers will set up exhibits of costumes at the shows, and will stage a special makeup session before the show in the lobby.
The Beijing Opera Troupe will perform at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, at 4 and 7:30 p.m. on Saturday and at 3 and 6 p.m. on Sunday at the Little Angels Performing Arts Center in northern Seoul. Tickets cost between 20,000 won and 40,000 won ($16-32). For secondary school students, a 50 percent discount will be offered. Special table seating, which includes Chinese tea and cookies, costs 100,000 won for two persons and 200,000 won for four persons. For more information or reservations, call 02-546-3614.
The jingju (Beijing Opera) performers Han Juming, left, and Wang Rongrong will play Xiang Yu and Yu Ji, the tragic lovers of "The King Bids Farewell to His Mistress." The JoongAng Ilbo English Edition spoke recently with the lead actors about their lives as opera stars.
Q : Beijing Opera deals only with classic subjects. Don't you ever want to change?
A : Wang: Jingju is still a very conservative production dealing with age-old, feudal themes. There are only a few scriptwriters specializing in jingju these days, because it's a difficult job. Modernizing movies or TV shows is easy, but jingju is different. Only 5 percent of Beijing Operas are based on modern subjects, which means stories from the '30s or '40s. Because the Beijing Culture Department screens the scenarios, the stories usually deal with content that is educational or socially correct.
You began training for jingju at the age 12. What was it like growing up as a jingju actor?
Han: One thing you should know is that the movie "Farewell, My Concubine" was dramatized for cinematic effect. The story took place before the Cultural Revolution, when actors were sold to opera troupes. I went to a school with a seven-year program. It was very strict and had many requirements, but I enjoyed singing and studying there. The young jingju actors had to learn basic martial arts, so I did a lot of that.
What was the most memorable performance you had outside China?
Han: I did "Chu Feng Ling Kong" [Beijing Opera's version of the animated film "Mulan"] in London in August 1993. It was a two-hour opera with full subtitles. We got a standing ovation.
Wang: When I performed "Qin Xiang Lian" in the Sejong Center in Seoul in 1997, and I saw the audience crying.
What can we expect from your performance this weekend?
Han: The selection of works depends on the country. In Beijing Opera, there are two types of operas, prose and action-oriented. For Chinese-speaking people, we usually perform prose-oriented operas that tell a story. But for non-Chinese speakers, we do action-oriented opera. In Korea, we decided to do four different kinds of operas, rather than full-length productions, which we thought might bore a Korean audience.
For whom would you like to perform in the future?
Wang: I've performed in the grand theaters in front of powerful people, such as Jiang Zemin and Deng Xiaoping. But as an artist, I'd like to perform just about anywhere for anybody who loves Beijing Opera.
by Inēs Cho