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Cultural cross-pollination in Shanghai Huai Opera performance

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IMAGE COURTESY OF THE COMPANY
  • Image courtesy of the company

Shanghai Huai Opera
Stewart Theatre, N.C. State Campus
March 28

Despite the current wariness surrounding Sino-American relations, Shanghai's Huai Ju Troupe received an unambiguously warm welcome from the audience for their second U.S. performance ever (their U.S. debut happened in Greensboro the night before).

The style of traditional Chinese opera known as Huai ju is quite different from the European operas with which Western audiences are more familiar. The form is more than 200 years old, relating historical and folkloric stories with a madcap, almost vaudevillian blend of recitation, singing, traditional music, acrobatics and dance, with elaborate garb and plentiful fight scenes. The costumes were particularly noteworthy, comprised of many layers of opulent silks, sashes and sleeves, glittering jeweled headdresses, garish make-up and animal masks. While the performances are known to go on for hours, we were treated to a sort of greatest-hits: five set-pieces from five different narratives in about two hours.

The movement was stylized and minimal, and the stage followed suit. Before a backdrop of painted flowers, the first piece, "Stopping the Horse," featured only a red-and-gold draped table and a chair. The story relates how the daughter of a general of the Song Dynasty snuck into an enemy camp dressed as a man, focusing on her humorous encounter with a hostel proprietor who catches on. While the nuances of the plot and the punch lines of the gags were only comprehensible to native Chinese and China scholars (the shakily-translated subtitles were occasionally baffling: "You are I are just like remote mild goose..."), the comedy came across at a broad, slapstick level. This is a kind of opera especially suited to children. The daughter-in-drag looked like a cross between Natalie Portman in Star Wars and a Mighty Morphin Power Rangers villain, and her protracted battle with the hostel-keeper was filled with acrobatic feats revolving around the creative use of the chair.

"A Mute Girl at Trial—Going to the Capital" was a highlight; a solo performer wore a clever dummy representing her brother across her midsection, which made her appear to be riding on his back, legs comically thrust out behind her. So was "Journey to the West—The Leopard," based on Chinese literary masterpiece Journey to the West. The bravura fight scene revolves around a wandering monk and his colorful companions—a monkey, a pig-human hybrid and a sand demon—battling a leopard who's forcibly taken the most beautiful woman in Deng Jia Village as his wife. The leopard looked rather like the Cowardly Lion but played his role with fearsome gravity, and performed virtuosic spinning feats with a staff. One acrobat executed a long series of stationary back-flips that looked basically impossible. It was like a live rendition of a Hayao Miyazaki animated film.

Sometimes, the music matched the high-pitched register of the performance: the first piece was scored almost entirely for crashing gongs. But the musicians came out of the wings to perform an interlude and a finale, and at these times, a contrasting stateliness descended. The instruments ranged from the elegant pipa, a sort of four-stringed lute, to the humble bamboo flute. The music emphasized how much crossover there is among far-flung musical cultures: the interlude sounded like Chinese bluegrass with runs of Spanish guitar. The performance overall did the same thing, showing how the meta-narratives of folklore become formalized in operas. The regional specifics may be unfamiliar, but the basic thrust—for a culture to tell itself about itself via song, dance and speech—is of a piece with theatrical traditions worldwide. This was a valuable opportunity to gain insight into a distant culture that can seem hopelessly exotic to Westerners, at a time when that sort of empathetic insight is direly needed.

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