Decoding Chinese Opera
On the afternoon of December 9, an audience, consisting primarily of opera and music lovers, was abuzz with excitement, in anticipation of a Chinese Heritage Foundation lecture/recital showcasing prominent Chinese opera star, Feifei Shen, from Beijing. Shortly after 3 PM moderator Margaret Wong promptly began the program with a short history of the development of Chinese opera, from 2000 BC to the Tang Dynasty (600-900 AD), and introduced FeiFei to the audience. Beautifully dressed in a white gown, FeiFei began with an ancient folk song, then sang two arias from the popular 2008 TV series on Dream of the Red Chamber, followed by two contemporary ballads on two famous women poets: Li Qing Zhao and Zhuó WenJun.
While FeiFei was changing her costume, Margaret continued with a description of the established format of Chinese opera, taking the audience through its staging, props, required attributes of actors (to be able to sing, speak, act and do acrobatics). She the described the four main roles in Chinese opera: the dan (the diva), the sheng (male lead), the chou (clown) and the jing (painted face). She also enumerated the significance of the colors of the painted face. Throughout her delivery, Margaret encouraged the audience to imagine themselves in a traditional Chinese teahouse where Chinese operas are frequently performed and that it was all right to get up to avail themselves to the delicious tea and delectable treats that Yin Simpson had arranged for them.
When FeiFei returned, in a gorgeous traditional Chinese gown, she sang three arias from traditional Chinese opera: Farewell, My Concubine, A Walk in the Gardenfrom Peony Pavilion, and Lady Yang Gets Drunk. The deeply appreciative audience sat quietly while FeiFei glided and danced as she sang. While such graceful and choreographed movements are integral to the delivery of all major arias in Chinese opera, they are rare in western opera.
With a final costume change FeiFei returned to sing four traditional folk songs, accompanied by pianist Li Lei. At their conclusion, the audience applauded enthusiastically and many of them lingered afterwards to greet and to chat with FeiFei, urging her to return soon for more performances. These serious music lovers greatly appreciated the intimate opportunity to see and hear Chinese opera the way it was intended, away from the acoustic assault necessitated by large venues.