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The Delicate Portrayal of Life as Peking Opera Actors (Part 1)

By Quek See Ling

I seem to have an affinity with Chinese opera recently. I was happily devouring well-known Singaporean novelist Yeng Pway Ngon’s latest masterpiece, The Costume, when the chance to watch the Taiwanese GuoGuang Opera Company (“GuoGuang”) in action on 17 February 2016 proved too irresistible to pass. GuoGuang’s One Hundred Years on Stage was one of the many performances at Huayi (Chinese Festival of Arts) 2016 at Singapore’s Esplanade.

2016.06.17_Peking_Opera_Web The cast of One Hundred Years on Stage(Source: Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, Singapore)

After the curtain fell, I was left feeling overwhelmed in my little abyss with the realisation that the creation of cultural classics is possible in this day and age. Though the performing arts are only the medium to convey artistic expression, the emotions that they inspire will cut through time and space. Just like what the show’s artistic director and co-writer, Dr Wang An-chi, had mentioned in the preface of her script collection, her only intention was the unrestricted expression of the deep emotions of the characters from her own subconsciousness.

GuoGuang’s Peking Opera Masterpiece

Formed in 1995, GuoGuang is Taiwan’s national Peking Opera troupe that has been refreshing the traditional Chinese performing arts with modernity, while taking on Chinese culture from a contemporary perspective. Besides their performance on the Peking Opera classics, many of their contemporary creations were critically acclaimed and they had performed in various locations around the world like Europe, South America and Asia.

Premiering in Taipei in April 2011, One Hundred Years on Stage was the second part of GuoGuang’s The Actor Trilogy – the first part was Meng Xiaodong and the third part was Flowing Sleeves and Rouge. Boasting a strong cast of outstanding Peking Opera actors, One Hundred Years on Stage was shortlisted as a Performing Arts finalist in the 2012 Taishin Arts Awards. The Singapore show came six years after their last performances of Wang Xifeng and Golden Lock here in 2010. Dr Wang also took the opportunity to share her creative experience with opera enthusiasts at library@esplanade three days before the performance.

The Show within the Show

Peking Opera started becoming popular during the Qing dynasty, around the 1850s and 1860s. Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799) was a fan of the Chinese opera and was said to have made six trips to the south which led to the increased frequency of interaction of the opera troupes from various parts of China. Correspondingly, the increased interactions and joint performances of the opera troupes led to an amalgamation of the best features of the opera troupes from Anhui and Hubei. Over time, the Peking Opera developed its unique style that combined the theatrical performance elements of speech, song, dance, acrobatics, and combat with the aesthetic execution to convey the complex emotions of the characters. Therefore, the “Peking” in Peking Opera denotes its origin, not the Beijing dialect. Despite its late invention when compared to other traditional arts, the Peking Opera is listed as China’s national drama.

2016.06.17_Peking_Opera_Web2 The Beijing-style and Shanghai-style Peking opera troupes squaring off in the second act with the same show, the Legend of the White Snake(Source: Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, Singapore)

One Hundred Years on Stage chronicled the lives of Peking Opera artists across three generations through a pair of embroidered shoes and two storylines in three acts. The first story took place in an opera troupe in Beijing in the 1910s when female were not allowed to participate yet; female roles were primarily performed by male actors. The main male character, Xiao Yunxian, who had learnt the ropes of playing the leading female character in the Legend of the White Snake decided to leave the Beijing opera troupe because of his grievances and chose to leave his teacher’s gift to him, a pair of embroidered shoes, behind. As an accomplished actor with a new name, Hua Yun, he returned 20 years later to take over a Shanghai-style Peking opera troupe. Putting aside business rivalry, he decided to stage a play with his aged and sick teacher’s opera troupe and fulfilled the latter’s wish to die on stage.

Please look out for The Delicate Portrayal of Life as Peking Opera Actors (Part 2)


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