Synthesizing music, drama, dancing, and acrobatics, and delivering song in registers so high as to seem obscene to the Western ear, Chinese opera continues traditions established as long ago as the twelfth century. Characterized by elaborate costumes imitating the styles of... [more]
Synthesizing music, drama, dancing, and acrobatics, and delivering song in registers so high as to seem obscene to the Western ear, Chinese opera continues traditions established as long ago as the twelfth century.
Characterized by elaborate costumes imitating the styles of the Ming Dynasty, minimal sets, and a rigid taxonomy of roles, Chinese opera is a highly developed, difficult art, heavily steeped in tradition, repeated and nuanced over the course of hundreds of years.
From the very beginning of their training, Chinese opera performers are type-cast to play one of four principle roles: sheng, tan, ching, or chou. Gender is not the decisive factor in casting, for either men or women can play any of the roles. The roles themselves, however, have rigid and distinct characteristics: sheng, for example, is always a male role, and takes the forms of wu sheng (a military man), hsiao sheng (a young scholar or lover), lao sheng or hsu sheng (an aged man), and hung sheng (a red-faced aged man). The roles are distinguished clearly by costumes, and a symbolic system of colors designates qualities such as nobility, virtue, and courage.
In general, props in Chinese opera are kept to a minimum, reduced to spare suggestions: a few chairs, tables, and rugs, for example, are arranged and re-arranged to depict various interiors; an oar might suffice to represent a boat. The stage remains open, uncluttered, almost empty, providing ample space for the acrobatics of the actors.
The orchestra is small, comprised usually of six or seven musicians; instruments include strings, winds, and a wide array of percussion. While the string instruments accompany singing, percussion is employed to punctuate entrances, exits, and specific actions and gestures. Typically, a loud gong punctuates the action of royalty, whereas a soft, subtle gong adumbrates the activity of the peasantry.
Chinese opera synthesizes an entire spectrum of talents, from drama and to music to acrobatics and dance. Enhancing the plot with tragedy and comedy, and boasting bright and meticulously constructed costumes, Chinese opera integrates all the charms of popular entertainment with the elements of a highly complex and highly difficult art. [show less]