Music in Beijing Opera comes mainly in variations of two set tunes: xi pi and er huang. Words come mostly in five-word or seven-word sentences. Xi pi is lively, vigorous and quick and is used to express an excited mood such as happiness, anger or agitation. Er huang is gentle, steady and deep, and is used to express a subdued mood such as loss in deep thought, sorrow and melancholy. These two tunes have given rise to a dozen or so strains, depending on tempo, sentence length and theatrical requirements.
In addition, Beijing Opera has assimilated tunes from other operas. These include the southern bang zi, a gentle melody tooted in Henan that is used mostly by dan and xiao sheng roles; the si ping tume used to accompany sentences of any irregular lengths; the high-pitched gao bo zi tune that has evolved from qin qiang Opera melody and is used to express an excited mood; the gentle kunqu melody used to express subtle feelings; and chui qiang, a flute-accompanied tune.
A Beijing Opera orchestra is divided into two parts. One is called wen chang whose main function is to accompany singing. Palying orchestral music, it is dominated by a stringed instrument called jinghu (or Beijing Opera fiddle) and is supplemented by pluched instruments such as yue qin ( moon-shaped mandolin) and pi pa (four-stringed lute). Its head is the jing hu player. Each well-known singing actor usually has his personal jing hu player, who does not show up until the actor he serves comes onto the stage.
The other part is called wu chang whose mainly function is to accompany acting, recitation, dancing and acrobatic fighting. Playing percussion music, it uses drums, wooden clappers, gongs and cymbal. The drummer heads the wu chang team of musicians and is also the conductor of the entire orchestra, although he generally is not as well know as the fiddle player. The wu chang produces music that accompanies scene changes and creates different stage atmospheres.
Another important part of Beijing Opera performance is singing, which is closely connected with music. In a theater, audiences focus their interest on performers on the stage, on their color costumes and acting, but the wen chang and wu chang teams of musicians flanking the stage control the rhythm-key to success or failure of a performance. The orchestra, aside from controlling the rhythm, provides the music itself. In traditional opera theory, a good performance is said to “depend on front stage (acting and singing) by 30 percent and on bacd stage (music) by 70 percent”.
SOURCE : Peking Opera, published by China International Press
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