China’s Golden Week saw 300,000 Chinese visitors descend on London, an increase of a third from last year’s holiday, and 2017 marks the 45th anniversary of the Ambassadorial diplomatic ties between China and Britain. So, this is an important time in the bilateral partnership between the two countries.
To celebrate this international relationship the China National Peking Opera Company are making a triumphant return to London to perform the European premieres of A River All Red and The Phoenix Returns Home. But how much do you know about this traditional Chinese cultural event?
Peking Opera, otherwise known as Beijing opera or Jingju, originates from the late 18th century, combining dance, music, voice performance, mime and acrobatics. It’s an art form that requires a lifelong dedication with performers starting their training at eleven years old and training for six years. Although this commitment to training seems intense, in previous generations it was even more extreme – children were sent to live at Peking Opera schools from six or seven years old for a ten-year training programme.
During the rigorous training, the first skill to be mastered is acrobatics, where students do combat training with spears, swords, staffs and hammers. But it’s not enough to have stamina and be a talented acrobat, each performer must also be an expert in singing in the Peking Opera style. For example, the female role (dan) has many variations including falsetto (qingqyi) and the natural voice (laodan). The singing is complimented by the traditional music performed in the Ban Qiang style, combining two main melodies – Xipi and Erhuang. Xipi is energetic, strong and fast and is typically played when the mood is one of enthusiasm or anxiety. While Erhuang is slower and softer, expressing unhappiness and melancholy. The two styles vary depending on the tempo of the scene, actor’s lyrics and their stage actions and gestures. Whilst a traditional Western opera orchestra consists of strings, brass, woodwind and percussion, traditional Peking Opera is a combination of string instruments and percussion and the drummer is the conductor of the whole orchestra.
After years of training, the troupe spends hours each night applying their makeup in the traditional style of the Peking Opera – each performer is their own makeup artist. With no detail left untouched, each stroke of their makeup brush represents something important in the story of the opera. The colourful painted faces reflect the characteristics of that particular role. For example, the performer with a red face reflects loyalty and courage, whilst the purple performer is an image of wisdom and a steadfast soul. In contrast to Western culture where white is often used to portray innocence, in Peking Opera white is the colour of the villain.
All made up, the company takes to the stage adorned with incredibly intricate costumes weighing up to 15kg and provides a visually spectacular performance suitable for all ages.
The China National Peking Opera Company will be performing A River All Red on 21st and 24th October and The Phoenix Returns Home on 22nd and 25th October at Sadler’s Wells Theatre. Click here to buy tickets.