Creative revisions of China's musical essence
Peking Opera is known as "the quintessence of Chinese culture". It is the most dominant form of Chinese opera, with nearly 200 years of history. [Photo: courtesy of the Beijing Peking Opera Theater]
Peking Opera is a form of Chinese opera that combines music, vocal performance, mime, dance and acrobatics. It is also known as the national opera of China. Originating in the Qing Dynasty in the mid-nineteenth century, it has become one of the most influential and representative of all operas in China. In 2010, it was inscribed onto the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Yet this art is struggling to maintain its enchantment in modern society, as younger generations are exposed to many other forms of entertainment. To tackle this situation, a group of professionals are trying to revive the time-honored art by adding modern elements into it. What chemistry it has produced? Has it gained recognition of the fans nationwide? Let's find out more on this edition of Selfie.
Stage photo of The Drunken Concubine performed by Hu Wenge who is famous for playing female characters. [Photo: from IC]
Peking Opera is known as "the quintessence of Chinese culture". It is the most dominant form of Chinese opera, with nearly 200 years of history. The particular Peking Opera aria you are hearing is called The Drunken Concubine, sung by Hu Wenge, a famous opera performer who is famous for playing leading female roles. It is the story of a concubine called Yang Yuhuan in the Tang Dynasty about 1400 years ago who was neglected by the emperor Xuanzong and drank to drown her sorrows. All the music and dancing in the play reflected her disappointment and despair.
We spoke to a couple of foreign audience who have watched the performance.
"Firstly, the face of the actor/the actress is very expressive. Even without singing, you can feel what she is trying to express, what she is trying to say to the audience. About the singing, although I do not really understand it, it is very expressive. I can feel the loneliness and the sense of anger. The dancing in this performance is a bit slow and expresses loneliness, sadness and uncertainty about the future."
"As a foreigner, if you do understand the background of the story, it is very interesting and entertaining. Even fascinating is the fact that most of the female characters that are performing as female, but they are not actually female. They are male, which to me, is exciting and fascinating. When I watch the show, I am not just paying attention to the voices. I am paying attention to the entire package."
It is seen a decreasing number of opera fans. There are a lot more choices nowadays with how people spend their leisure time, thanks to a rapid development of the entertainment industry. To help revive Peking opera for the modern society, professionals are making more effort to win attention from the public and increase the charm of this cultural essence.
Shang Jingya is a young guzheng player with the Beijing Peking Opera Theatre. [Photo: courtesy of Shang Jingya]
In recent years, Peking Opera enthusiasts have been impressed by a brand-new art form, which introduces an ancient Chinese musical instrument to its orchestra. It is called the guzheng, and has more than 2500 years of history, reputed as an embodiment of Chinese culture.
The features of the guzheng's sound are that it's elegant and classical. A lot of people say they typically feel a sense of peace and may find themselves deep in contemplation while listening to its music.
Shang Jingya is a young guzheng player with the Beijing Peking Opera Theatre. She has been pivotal in introducing the instrument to the orchestra of Peking Opera. She says the guzheng has a marvelous musical capability and can convey a wide range of emotions, which helps audiences understand the emotional world of the character and strengthen the atmosphere created in the story.
Stage photo of the guzheng version of Farewell My Concubine. [Photo: courtesy of Shang Jingya]
Shang says the creative art successfully broadens the potential of these two long-standing cultures, "It is well-known that Peking Opera orchestras have many Chinese instruments, including the Chinese lute, different kinds of drum and the erhu, which is a two-stringed instrument played with a bow that sits on player's lap when they are performing, so it is quite a breakthrough to have the guzheng in the band. After trying thousands of times to combine the two in a way that worked, I believe I have managed to create the desired effect. Nowadays, the guzheng plays a significant role in the opera. It makes people understand both the instrument and the opera better."
The first new Peking Opera-Farewell My Concubine that Shang brought to the stage in 2016. [Photo: courtesy of Shang Jingya]
This is called Farewell My Concubine, which was the first new Peking Opera that Shang brought to the stage in 2016. The guzheng is the only instrument in this performance that accompanies the singing, so it is very distinctive from the traditional version.
The story brings us back to the splendid Chu-Han Contention 2200 years ago. Emperor Xiang Yu from the Qin Dynasty had lost a major conflict to his Han enemy after four-years of resistance. Losing the combat, Xiang Yu felt ashamed and was going to commit suicide. Before he did, he went to his beloved lady, Yu Ji, to say farewell. The performance is Yu Ji's monologue showing her grief and struggle to let Xiang Yu go.
Shang Jingya and the Opera vocalist called Zheng Xiao [Photo: courtesy of Shang Jingya]
The guzheng piece played by Shang Jingya and the performance of the opera actress achieves a perfect unification at the climax in the story, when Yu Ji puts on the last sword dance for her dispirited hero as a final goodbye. The actress spins faster and faster along with a quickening tempo to represent her reluctance to lose her loved one.
Shang is relieved when her new experiment appears to have won recognition, with audiences always giving them a big round of applause.
Shang says it is a milestone in her career and this success has encouraged her to continue making more contributions, "When I was at university, I was able to sing this opera while playing another Chinese instrument called the yueqin, which is a member of the family of Chinese plucked string lutes. I think it helped a lot when I was composing music to use the guzheng as the sole instrument in this play. Having a thorough understanding of the play assisted me to take advantage of the features of the guzheng, its timbre, sound and musical impact, in a bid to unveil the emotion of the role behind the music."
Shang Jingya is pivotal in introducing the guzheng to the orchestra of Peking Opera. [Photo: courtesy of Shang Jingya]
Some may wonder what inspired Shang to come up with the ingenious idea. She says studying guzheng as her major for four years at her undergraduate university, the National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts, helped her obtain comprehensive knowledge of Peking Opera.
The tertiary educational institution has a profound culture of helping students develop their capacity to bring body, voice and spirit together in ways both personal and transformative, while exploring classical opera plays. For years, it has trained many famous opera singers and actors.
With this kind of cultural background, Shang was able to experience the beauty and essence of opera. She was motivated to carry out a brave experiment to combine it with the instrument she had learned her whole life.
"I spent a lot of time practicing guzheng and also took composition courses when I was at university. At the time, I realized that many ancient guzheng pieces were created based on different styles of Chinese opera. Then I had a bold idea - why not integrate the guzheng into Peking Opera and see what new chemistry it would produce. After that, I started composing guzheng pieces for some small segments of Peking Opera plays. When I make adaptations to traditional, famous plays, I retain the essence and original flavor, because there's a good reason why it's a famous masterpiece and has been passed down for so many years."
Since she graduated in 2009, Shang has been working with the Beijing Peking Opera Theatre, and there she met a number of supportive producers, composers and opera singers. They built a strong, cooperative team. To date, they have put on more than 30 large-scale new operas and had a great number of tours across the nation. More and more audiences have accepted this creative art and say they enjoy it as both an auditory and visual feast. Shang says she has discovered her role in the performance.
"After taking part in a lot of performances, I have gradually understood that I have two roles that I need to fulfill. First of all, I am a guzheng player, and second, I am an opera vocalist. When I play the guzheng for the opera actor, I also sing silently along with the person on stage. This helps me inject emotion into the music, because the instrument should not be simply added to the ensemble. It is supposed to make the opera more appealing and approachable. That's how audiences can get a better understanding of the character, through the abundant expressions of the instrument and the body language of the actor."
As well as integrating the guzheng into Peking Opera, Shang Jingya is also dedicated to adding elements of the opera into guzheng pieces. "Qupai" is a generic term for a fixed melody often used in traditional Chinese music. Ancient musicians gave different names to diverse melodies they composed and others were welcomed to create lyrics for them. Later, they were commonly adapted into Chinese opera. Shang is inspired by the unique rhythm and flavor of “Qupai” and has created a couple of guzheng pieces with elements of it.
The piece you are hearing is called Long-lasting Happiness, which is named after the "Qupai" that Shang used. It is full of fast tempo, showing an enthusiastic and festive scene. Zhou Wang was Shang's guzheng professor for her postgraduate study.
"It is a valuable production as it has entirely transformed the perception of the instrument to the general public. The guzheng can also be active and cheerful, as well as expressing a deep and profound image. I think it is a wonderful creation, and attracts both instrumental and opera lovers. It is an effective method to win public attention."
The revival of the Peking Opera has been made possible thanks to passionate professionals like Shang Jingya. As China, a country with a long history and rich culture, is facing the challenge of preserving many of its traditional art forms, we hope more open-minded people will join their efforts with more innovative ideas to protect the country's cultural treasures and help pass them down to future generations.