Traditional Chinese opera is a comprehensive performing art which combines singing, music, dialogue, acrobatics, martial arts, and pantomime. Recent surveys show there are more than 360 different forms of opera throughout the country. Today we will introduce some of them.
京剧 Peking Opera / Beijing Opera (jīng jù )
Peking opera is a form of traditional Chinese theater that combines music, vocal performance, mime, dance and acrobatics. Boasting a history of more than two centuries, it is the most influential and representative of all operatic forms in China, as well as one of the three most influential theatrical art forms in the world.
The music of Peking opera is mainly orchestral music and percussion instruments that provide a strong rhythmical accompaniment. The main percussion instruments are gongs and drums of various sizes and shapes. There are also clappers made of hardwood or bamboo.
The main stringed instrument is the jinghu, supported by the erhu. Plucked stringed instruments include the yueqin, pipa and sanxian. Occasionally, a suona horn and Chinese flute are also used.
The orchestra is led by a drummer who uses bamboo sticks to create very powerful sounds sometimes loud, sometimes soft, sometimes strong and exciting, sometimes faint and sentimental and bring out the emotions of the characters in coordination with the acting of the performers.
The vocal part of Peking opera is both spoken and sung. Spoken dialogue is divided into yunbai and jingbai, the former employed by serious characters, and the latter by young females and clowns.
The character roles in Peking opera are finely and strictly differentiated into fixed types. Female roles are generally known as dan and male roles as sheng, but male clowns are known as chou.
A chou, depicted by a patch of white on the face, is a humorous character. Male characters who are frank and open-minded but rough or those who are crafty and dangerous are known as jing or hualian.
Peking opera roles are further classified according to the age and personality of the characters. Each different role type has a style and rules of its own. The performance of Peking opera was initially an exclusively male pursuit. The Qianlong Emperor had banned all female performers in Beijing in 1772. The appearance of women on the stage began unofficially during the 1870s. And the ban was lifted in 1912, although male Dan continued to be popular after this period.
Peking opera performance is characterized by a formulaic and symbolic style with actors and actresses following an established choreography for the movements of the hands, eyes, torsos and feet.
Exaggerated facial expressions and gestures symbolizing emotional reactions are employed to create a continuous visible element with the tonal movement of the actors' singing and declamations.
秦腔 Qinqiang (qín qiāng )
Carried out in the Shaanxi dialect in high-pitched voices, the operatic form has established a venerable tradition as a shouted out opera with its bold, resounding arias.
This distinctive opera more closely resembles local yodeling than traditional Chinese opera. It traces its roots to ancient local folk songs and dance forms from the Yellow River Valley of Shaanxi and Gansu provinces -- the birthplaces of Chinese culture. The opera first appeared in the Qin Dynasty some 2200 years ago before it flourished in the imperial capital of the Tang dynasty Chang'an, which is today's Xi'an. With its long history, Qinqiang is credited as the forefather of Chinese operas.
Today, Qinqiang has evolved into an established theatre style, but retains its bold and rustic aspect. The pitch is extremely high and the aria timbre is loud and sonorous, keeping in line with the forthright, valiant and industrious character of the local people.
The melodies of this genre are embodied with rich emotions. The operas are straightforward and passionate, with exaggerated and dramatic facial expressions, but also feature delicate emotions that can move audiences. At the moment, Qinqiang opera is not very popular among young people because it is an old kind of opera.
Qinqiang performances are characterized by a simple and bold style that is at once penetratingly exquisite, yet also exaggerated. The roles are categorized into 13 types, namely, four types of shengs, the male roles in traditional Chinese opera, six dan, or female characters, two jing, painted-face characters and one chou, or clown.
粤剧 Cantonese Opera (yuè jù)
Cantonese opera is one of the major categories of Chinese opera, combining Mandarin operatic traditions and the Cantonese dialect. Taking root in the Cantonese-speaking Guangdong and Guangxi areas in southern China, this theatrical form has enjoyed great popularity throughout China, and provides a cultural bond among Cantonese speakers in the country and abroad.
The vocal music in Cantonese opera originated mainly from 'bangzi' and 'erhuang'. It also utilizes a number of songs from Kunqu opera and the regional tunes of Guangdong province, like the Nanyin Music and muyu. The music of Cantonese Opera consists of innumerable melodies and tunes. Chen Shaomei is a veteran performer and choreographer of Cantonese opera for more than 50 years.
Xiaoqu is the sizhu tradition native to the Pearl River delta area centered in Guangzhou. And the paizi tunes have a more archaic flavor compared to other tunes in Cantonese opera. They are unique for their unusual texture produced by the extraordinarily loud and brilliant sound of the suona instruments, gongs and cymbals.
The instrumental music in Cantonese Opera is a combination of percussion and orchestral music. The percussion section of Cantonese Opera consists of many different drums. The percussion is responsible for the overall rhythm and pace of the music.
The orchestral part of Cantonese opera music provides an accompaniment to the singing, and provides both precludes and interludes. Today, Cantonese opera has incorporated many western instruments including the cello, the saxophone, and even the violin.
Cantonese opera shares many common characteristics with other Chinese theatrical genres. It is characterized by a combination of string and percussion instruments, with elaborate costumes and face painting.
It also incorporates stunts and fights using real weapons, drawing inspiration from the Shaolin martial arts, as illustrated by the central Wenwusheng role that demands proficiency in both singing and fighting.
While actors are singing and moving around on stage, they also have to act. The art of acting during a Cantonese opera performance is not the same as acting in movies or on TV. Many emotions have specific facial expressions and body gestures which must be performed. Performers also have to be careful not to ruin their makeup or hair with histrionic expressions.
Many Cantonese operas preach the importance of being loyal to one's country, filial to one's parents, and kind to one's friends. The art form has developed a rich repertoire of stories ranging from historical epics to more realistic descriptions of daily life. The culture and philosophy of the Chinese people are also reflected in the plays. So, Cantonese opera not only entertains, but also plays a significant part in cultivating good values.
黄梅戏 Huangmei Opera (huáng méi xì )
Huangmei Opera was originally called Huangmei tunes or tea-picking opera, and it combines singing and narration to tell stories in a local dialect.
This folk opera originated at the end of the 18th century and Anqing city in southwest Anhui is considered the birthplace of this opera style.
Compared to large opera productions, mini-operas are ever more popular. Mini-operas usually have only 2 or 3 roles. In its early stages, all the melodies derived from folk songs. There are about 100 such melodies which are all called Huaqiang Flowery Tune in Huangmei Opera.
Talking about the characteristics of the Huangmei Opera, Pan Qicai, a famous Huangmei Opera artist, says:
I summarize it in four sentences. The lyrics are vivid and popular. The music is beautiful and smooth. The repertoire is rich and varied. The performance includes singing and dancing. Especially the lyrics and the music or tunes, have strong local characteristics and artistic appeal.
It is said that life is played out on the small stage. The stage is a world unto itself, which reflects the even greater pageant of human life. Many rich and wonderful stories, some of which are over a thousand years old, are told in various forms of Chinese Opera. Young Chinese people today are still moved by the sorrows and joys expressed in these old operatic tales. From its humble birth to a glorious today, Huangmei Opera has experienced ups and downs. But one theme remains the same: life is beautiful.
豫剧 Yu Opera (yù jù )
Yu Opera originated from central China's Henan Province about 400 years ago, and has extended its popularity to other regions along the Yellow River in northern China.
It is famous for its loud voices, strong rhythms, and intensive use of spoken language. With unsophisticated performances, Yu Opera vividly depicts the nature of the Henan people: outspoken, straightforward, with a down-to-earth attitude and a good sense of humor.
昆曲 Kun Qu Opera (kūn qǔ )
Kun Qu Opera, literally also known as Kun Qiang, is an opera art system of Kunshan of Suzhou in China, which was originated during the end of the Yuan and beginning of the Ming dynasties (in mid 14th century). Kun Qu Opera is China' s oldest and most influential traditional opera. Many types of Chinese local dramas were developed on the basis of this opera, therefore, it has long been nicknamed as the Mother of Chinese operas. Kun Qu Opera is also the type of opera that enjoys the most complete performance system in Chinese opera history. Having a profound basis and rich heritage, Kun Qu Opera has been a product of China' s highly developed culture and arts, and occupies a very significant position in the history of Chinese literature, opera, music and dance. Kun Qu Opera is a blend of the arts of singing, reciting, acting, performance martial arts and dancing. It uses drums and boards to control its rhythm, and includes zigzag flute, three-stringed Chinese violin and other instruments as its main accompaniment. The opera mainly uses Suzhou-dialect styled Mandarin as its singing and talking language. In 2001, Kun Qu Opera was officially included in UNESCO' s oral and intangible cultural heritage list. Moreover, Kun Qu Opera, together with three other sister operas that originated in Haiyan and Yuyao in Zhejiang province, and Yiyang of Jiangxi province, were known as the Four Most Famous Operas in the Ming Dynasty, which all belong to China' s southern opera genre.
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