Chinese people love singing. Perhaps it is because speaking their language with its rising and falling tones (here The Steiny Road Poet is specifically thinking of Mandarin) is like singing. While Gertrude Stein never traveled to China or learned Mandarin, the unparalleled Modernist whose ear was always tuned to language noted miles and miles of Chinese children singing in her so-called children's book To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays. On a recent trip to China, the Steiny Road Poet, who suddenly took up college-level studies of Mandarin, had the occasion to experience ordinary people singing as well as theater professionals.
SINGING IN PUBLIC
As to the ordinary people, in Beijing the Poet observed women and men singing at Tian Tan (the Temple of Heaven). A very collegial happening, some singers invited the Steiny Road Poet to join in, offering to share their musical scores with her. Because space is at a premium, Chinese people often pursue their hobbies in public places.
As to trained professionals, on November 15, 2009, the Poet attended a zhezixi, a program comprised of selected Beijing opera scenes. Although the program was presented on the stage of the massive Qin Yue Gong Restaurant, which undeniably caters to large tour groups, one of the players was Mei Bao Jiu, the highly accomplished son of the internationally known Mei Lanfang (1894-1961). Both father and son, men who play the roles of women, perfected the art of the Dan.
DAN WHO?: A TUTORIAL
Before most Westerners can appreciate what perfecting the role of the Dan and the accomplishments of Mei Lanfang and Mei Bao Jiu mean in the world of Beijing opera, the Steiny Road Poet will offer a short tutorial based on her reading of parts of Elizabeth Wichmann's carefully researched book, Listening to Theatre: The Aural Dimension of Beijing Opera (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1991).
Opera, no matter whether it is Chinese or Western, sits at the top of the performing arts. Typically, opera encompasses specialized singing, acting (spoken and sung), instrumental performance, dance, costumes, and sets. Chinese opera includes all of these elements but also mixes in puppet theater, mask-drama, dance-drama, pantomime, acrobatics, and martial arts. While Western opera dates to the end of the 16th century in Italy with Daphne (1597)—the lost opera by Jacopo Peri, Chinese opera began in the third century BC or CE. Beijing Opera, a form of traditional Chinese theater, began in the late 18th century.
BEIJING OPERA: A QUEST FOR BEAUTY
Performers trained for Beijing Opera are required to perfect four skills (or gong in Chinese): chang (the skill of song), nian (the skill ofspeech), zuo (the skill of dance-acting including pure dance, pantomime, and acting), and da (the skill of combat including martial arts of fighting and acrobatics). The philosophy behind Beijing Opera is to transcend the reality of daily life in order to achieve an aesthetic truth where that truth equates to a state of beauty (mei in Chinese). In this quest for mei (beauty), the skills of the performer must appear to be effortless. Components of the Beijing opera's philosophical approach embrace synthesis of gong (the four performer's skills), stylization (one aspect is that performer avoids straight lines and applies roundness to his movements), and conventions that followers of Beijing Opera learn and which help to transform everyday realities. While some of the conventions (like allowing an ordinary chair to represent something larger or grander like a mountain or a throne) are intuitively understood by Western theatergoers, others (for example, those applied to speech and song production) require learning before one experiences Beijing opera.
Typically Westerners are not able to tolerate Chinese operatic singing. Those who have the widest musical experience often say that Chinese opera is an acquired taste. Here the Steiny Road Poet returns to her introduction that Chinese language itself with its tonal inflections is like singing. Elizabeth Wichmann, who spent two years in China, apprenticed to a Beijing opera company and one of her teachers was a student of Mei Lanfang, explains in several chapters what one must know in order to understand and possibly acquire the taste for Chinese opera singing. One of her basic tenets is that speech in Beijing opera conveys the narration of the opera while song carries the emotion.
Another critical thing to know is that Beijing opera uses both the old written language of classical Chinese literature and the current day vernacular. Does the Poet suggest there is a bit of storytelling improvisation threaded into a production of Beijing opera? Yes, but there is more to this freedom of introducing new material. In fact, even the music requires interpretation by the performers. Beijing opera scores are not fixed and are comprised of melodic-phrases, metrical types and modal systems. While melodic-phrases serve as the building blocks of meter, tempo and melodic tendencies, metrical types and modes further define how the music will be shaped.
Because the Poet knows that many among her readership will not be satisfied until she says something to address the high-pitched voice of the Chinese opera singer, she will say, yes, falsetto factors into this equation. Chinese opera is divided into what's called small-voice (xiaosangzi) and large-voice (dasangzi) parts. Performers of xiaosangzi (xiao means small) sing and speak in falsetto, while dasangzi (da means big or large) do not. All dan roles and the young sheng sing and speak in the small-voice mode. One characteristic of the small-voice mode is that the performer barely opens his mouth. The young dan roles require that teeth barely be seen.
WHO'S WHO OF JINGJU
Another important shaping of the music comes with the age and gender of the character performing. Westerners often know that Commedia dell'arte, a form of theater that started in Italy in the middle of the 16th century, has stock characters that fall into three groups: servant, master and inamorata (lovers). The Commedia dell'arte characters, often referred to as masks and who have such names as Arlecchino (or Harlequin), Pantalone, Pulcinella, Scaramuccia (or Scaramouche), il Dottore, Brighella, the Innamorati, etc., represent various genders, ages, and levels of class. Beijing opera has four principal types of roles—sheng (standard male characters), dan (female characters), jing (painted-face male characters who are superhuman), and chou (as the Chinese word translates—the "ugly" characters who may be clowns or jesters but also villains and young lovers).
Each of the four role categories of the Beijing opera has further subdivisions. The various categories also adhere to certain conventions. For example, the role of the dan, which traditionally has been played by men, originally breaks down into four subdivisions: laodan (the older woman), qingyi (the blue cloth dan), huadan (the flower dan), and wudan (the martial dan). A fifth subdivision called huashan (the flower shirt dan) was developed by dan performers of the early half of the twentieth century, including Mei Lanfang.
Conventions associated with the various dan roles are:
Laodan: This dan portrays a dignified old woman often with a bent back and long walking staff. She wears no makeup and has no fancy hairdo. Costumes usually have water sleeves. Water sleeves are extensions (usually in white silk) of costume's sleeve used to express emotion. Performers taking this role perfect the skills of song and speech supported by dance-acting.
Qingyi: This dan portrays a dignified young to middle-aged woman who may belong to a high social class. However, the name "blue cloth" dan may have been derived from a poverty-stricken or traveling dan who had wrapped her head in a blue cloth. The Qingyi wears long skirts and water sleeves. This dan's special skill is song supported by speech and dance-acting.
Huadan: The flower dan portrays a lively young woman of fairly low social status. Dressed in long skirts or pants, the huadan does not wear water sleeves. Dance-acting is the most developed skill supported by speech and sometimes song.
Wudan: This martial dan portrays women of all social status. The wudan is more dignified than the Huadan but less so than the Qingyi. Dressed in the feminine version of armor, the wudan specializes in combat supported by dance-acting, speech and occasionally song.
Huashan: The flower shirt dan combines the roles of the younger dans and may or may not use water sleeves with her costume. This dan displays all four skills of song, speech, dance-acting, and combat.
So what kind of dan did the Steiny Road Poet experience? Without a doubt Mei Bao Jiu has followed in father's footsteps with the flower shirt dan who does combat as well as song, speech and dance-acting. Mei Bao Jiu was a stand out.
None of the other performers came close to his skill level. The Poet believes that the performance she saw in Beijing was a poor man's version of Beijing opera and that she has seen better Beijing opera produced in Washington, DC, at the Smithsonian Institute.
That said, Beijing opera, like Western opera in the United States also runs into financial support issues and, similarly, both kinds of opera tend to attract an older audience. The Steiny Road Poet just finished reading Bi Feiyu's The Moon Opera as translated into English by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Line. The 117-page poetic novel about a disgraced Qingyi who gets a second chance late in life, but then has to relinquish her cherished role to her student, whom the Qingyi has trained as a Huadan, reveals a current day portrait of an opera company with all sorts of problems, especially financial ones. In this novel, the dans are actual women. The Steiny Road Poet recommends this beautifully written novel because it will help a reader interested in current day Beijing opera to understand the roles of the blue cloth and flower dans.
If the Steiny Road Poet was asked now to choose between going to the dinner theater offering the unrelated opera scenes or to the Temple of Heaven to see ordinary people singing, dancing, and playing music, she would definitely choose the spontaneous performances she saw on the grounds of the Temple of Heaven. However, there was value in seeing the professionals, especially Mei Bao Jiu because it lit a fire under her to find out more about Chinese opera, particularly Jīngjù—Beijing opera.