Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A Night at the Opera

 The saying goes that everyone needs to see Chinese Opera once in their lives.

And only once.

Because apparently that once will be enough to last their entire lives. 

It’s perhaps important to point out that the person who told me this was herself Chinese, that this isn’t merely a western reaction to a type of music that my rural Virginia friends would refer to as “caterwaulin’”—a high Scots phrase referring to cats that, well—waul.   

It’s also perhaps important to point out that the term “caterwaulin’,” which I’ve never actually heard anyone in the state of Virginia use, could also be applied to Western opera, anything written by Madonna in the last 20 years, Britney Spears since her first marriage, and Snoop Doggy Dog in his entire life. 

Having thus offended most of Asia, a large part of Europe, and every Madonna, Britney, and Snoop fan out there (in short, no one), allow me to say that, having spent our first six-and-a-half-months in Hong Kong defining “culture” largely as “things you can eat,” our time for going to the Opera had finally come.

Steeling ourselves for the experience, we spent an hour in our room putting on our nicest clothes and slamming vodka martinis.  We’d planned on leaving at five, but for some reason got a late start (Ellen couldn’t find her keys; I couldn’t find my face).  As a result, we spent the whole stroll down the hill, the shuttle-ride to the station, and the train ride down to East Tsim Sha Tsui debating whether we should go straight to the opera or try to squeeze in dinner first. 

I was all for getting some food.  There was this little German place we’d been meaning to try for a long time, and my postmodern, too-clever-by-half sensibilities loved the idea of sampling 17 kinds of meat ending in “wurst” before watching a bunch of heavily made up folks in platform shoes and silk robes wobble around warbling about the morning frost on lotus flowers.

Ellen, though, had other ideas:  “We leave after the first act,” she said, “and go get more martinis.”

“You mean supper,” I said. 


I liked this idea, actually.  Unfortunately, for once in our lives our walk down the hill, the bus, and the train were in perfect sync, so that we ended up traveling the 17 miles down to East TST in roughly six minutes.  Grudgingly, we strolled to the German restaurant, ordered several variations of dead pig, and settled in for a long night.

The opera we’d chosen was called The Story of the Jade Hairpin.  It’s an old story about a boy, Pan Bizheng, who fails his university exams twice, and, forlorn, decides the best way to drown his misery is to move into his aunt’s Buddhist nunnery. 

Works for me. 

Meanwhile, the nunnery has received a new novice, an official’s daughter who has had to flee her war-torn region.  Bereft of family and all hope, Chen Jiaolian is about to kill herself when she’s rescued and taken to the temple.  There, she’s renamed Miaochang, and despite having some really fancy clothes and no real inclination toward becoming a nun, takes the vow.  Pan and Miaochang meet, of course, and fall in love, leading to a tale of “forbidden love, forced separation, and eventual reunion.”  If all of this sounds just a little bit like “When Harry Met Sally,” then that’s because it is only involving a nunnery, lots of Chinese people, and no orgasm scene in a restaurant. 

The particular version we saw was a new take on this old story, and composed in the kun style, at six-hundred-years old the grandfather of Chinese opera.

And, according to one of our neighbors at the theater, the most refined form of opera out there.  “Cantonese opera is good,” he told us during intermission.  “Peking Opera is the best.  But kun opera?  Shanghai opera?”  And here he held his hand in the air over his head, horizontal to the ground, showing a level unattainable by any of the others. 

That aside, the great thing about Chinese opera after half-a-year of living in China is that it reminds you that you’re in a foreign country.  It’s just that foreign.  Really.

Not that that’s bad.  On the contrary, Ellen and I were both delighted by the whole experience.  The music was powerful and moving, the costumes were gorgeous, and the writing was, for the most part, poetic and beautiful.

But seriously?  When we first moved to Virginia, we were shocked how the local accent could turn a single-syllable word—say, “sand”—into a multi-syllabic, multi-tonal phrase:  sa-an-duh.  This made for an exciting contrast the usual four-flat tires on a muddy road Wisconsin-speak:  “Y’all are goin’ to the be-each?  Funny.  I can-tuh sta-an-duh the sa-an-duh.”    

Well I’m here to tell you that Virginians got nothing (nuthin’) on those kun folk who regularly hold single words seven or eight beats, taking them through four or five tones.  Imagine a single sound:  gow.  Now take that sound and stretch it out for five seconds:  gooooowwwwwwwwwwwww.  Now take that stretched-out sound and put it on a roller coaster:  begin low, then go high, then to medium, then to high again, where you hold it until you can’t breath anymore. 

And we’re talking the spoken part of the opera, here; this is the dialogue.  You can imagine what the singing part sounded like.

Everything else in the play is just as stylized:  people don’t walk, they walk.  For women, this means mincing steps while holding the upper body steady, so that if a woman’s legs are covered by a gown she seems to actually float on a silken cloud.

For the men, walking means elongated steps at the end of sometimes byzantine leg movements:  imagine Python’s “Walk this way,” meets Tai Chi.   Making this all the more magnificent is the fact that male actors wear five-inch platform soles, elevating them precariously as they half waddle, half-stork stroll in rapid pursuit of the fleeing damsel or in flight from the angry prioress.

The arm gestures are just as elongated as the words, and twice as dramatic as the walking.  That the sleeves of the actors are probably triple the length of their arms makes their motions all the more fluid.  Indeed, as a whole, the costumes are everything you’d find in a child’s fairy dream of the orient:  long silken robes, flashing jewels, delicate fans, and elaborate head-pieces designed to show off the flowing black hair of the women, especially Miaochang, who, if she ever got her tresses tangled with her cuffs would need the jaws of life to extricate herself. 

Now if it sounds like I’m making fun of all of this, I would point out that only a culturally illiterate cretin would mock an art form that has been designated by UNESCO as a “Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.”

Fortunately, for you, of course, I come from a place where “culture” is defined as drinking beer from a glass and where the words “oral” and “masterpiece” are used together only when reviewing films deemed inappropriate for persons under the age of 18. 

That said, the overall effect of all of this is wonderfully elegant and sublimely elaborate.   The musculature and bodily control to perform kun is extraordinary.

With all the fancy costumes and the fancy walking and the fancy talking, it’s probably not too surprising that the story-line itself wasn’t a real cliff-hanger.  Check that:  I’ve seen Teletubbies episodes with more drama.

Part of this, I’m sure, resulted from the limitations of the translations.  Because the play itself was in Shanghainese, there were large screens above and on either side of the stage translating the lyrics and dialogue into both Chinese characters and English.  Though for the most part this worked just fine (even if the Budweiser ads got a little distracting), every once in a while we had the sense that we were missing something. 

Take, for instance, the scene where Pan and Miaochang came upon each other in the woods late at night.  This is early in their courtship, and neither is certain of the others’ feelings.   You can imagine the chemistry:  she’s sixteen, gorgeous, decked out in silken robes and glowing jewels that highlight her ebony hair and high cheekbones.  He’s a party boy, twice flunking his exams, living in a nunnery, now alone in the woods with this gorgeous young thing. 

They banter back and forth.  He tries to get her to sing him a song on her zither, a long, stringed instrument with a wooden joy stick.  She refuses, saying it wouldn’t be appropriate, threatening to narc to his aunt on him if he doesn’t leave her alone.  The tension builds.  He leans forward over the table where she’s seated; she leans back, but only a little.  Her hands are bare, resting on the music box.  His inch closer.  Then the subtitles flash the following dialogue: 

P:  Your fingers are like silken bows glowing in the moonlight.

M: Naughty boy!   I will tell your aunt.

P:  Have you seen the floss?

M:  Excuse me?

P:  The floss—I can’t find it anywhere.

M:  I haven’t seen it.   Did you look in the drawer with the toothpaste?

P:  It’s not there.  And I’ve got this sesame seed stuck between my teeth—it’s aching like the warm red sun on a rain-parched plateau.

M:  It should be in the drawer.  I haven’t touched it.

P:   Crap.

At another point, Miaochang is alone in her chamber, writing a poem about Pan.  Struggling to describe him, she chooses a single, long word that she twists and turns over itself for six minutes as she narrates her scribbling.  The teleprompter, meanwhile, gives us the word “Romantic,”

Romantic.  Really?  The guy’s wearing a floor to shoulder silk robe in baby blue, using a falsetto voice, and  trying to touch your zither—and “romantic” is the best you can come up with? 


In the end, I’ll have to admit, I dozed a little during the third scene, and got annoyed at the way my knees kept banging the head of the guy in front of me—though not half as annoyed as he was, I’m sure.  Ellen, meanwhile, confessed that she struggled to keep her head erect during the last two scenes, which made me feel a little better. 

Talking about it in the taxi on the way home, though, we were both happy that we’d gone.  I even confessed that I’d like to do it again sometime, albeit preferably in a theater where there was more legroom.

“Really?” said Ellen.

I nodded.  “And I want one of those silks robes, too.  And some of them fancy sleeves they were waving all over the place.” 

She looked at me, her face stippled by the lights of the passing cars.  I reached over and took her hand.

“Your eyes,” I said, “are like lotus flowers laced by the morning frost.”

She smiled gently, almost beatifically.  “I love you,” she said, “really I do.  And you’re the father of my children.  But if you ever say anything like that to me again, I’m going to have to kill you.” 

Then she patted my hand and released my fingers.  I grinned, leaning back in the seat.  Outside, Kowloon whizzed by, the double-decker busses, the red and green taxis, the tall buildings, lighted windows rising 80 floors.  It’d been a nice night, all things considered.  The German food, the opera, just getting out of the house without the kids for once.  We were in a magnificent city in Asia, experiencing a new culture, a new life, a new world.  So I wouldn’t ever be a famous kun actor.  Big deal.  Who cared?

Unless . . .

Could it be?

Maybe . . . maybe I just needed try harder? 

I reached again for Ellen’s hand.  

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