Thursday, November 15, 2012

A Night at the Szechuan Opera

Opera singers decked in their colourful
outfits entertaining the audience
ELLEN WHYTE spends a night at a Chinese opera in Chengdu and comes away awed
Pictures by ELLEN WHYTE

“TONIGHT we’re visiting the Opera!” Our guide May is mercifully unaware of the effect her announcement has on my mood. I love travel and I love what I’ve seen of China so far. The pandas are impressive, the temples terrific, the food amazing, and the country beautiful. But opera? I’ve seen some Chinese opera in Malaysia during the Hungry Ghost Festival and I am not a fan of it.

I don’t mind not understanding the plot or even being unable to tell who’s who. It’s the high-pitched wailing, oops, I mean singing, that makes my hair stand on ends and sends goose pimples down my arms.

As May is a darling and this is a treat organised by her bosses, I hide my feelings and smile. I decide to give it a whirl. If it’s really horrible, I can always plead a sudden headache and sneak off early in a taxi.

A solo viola recital
It’s just as well I went along because the Szechwan Opera was nothing like the shows I’ve seen before. The Szechwan Opera is fantastic.

The Szechwan Opera in Chengdu lies near Shu Feng Ya Yun tea house in the Cultural Park on Qintai Road. The building is set in some pretty grounds, but the inside has the feel of a school gym converted for the evening. What’s more, the walls could do with a touch of new paint, and the floors need sweeping.

What’s also unusual is that little shops flank the interior. They’re filled with ballet shoes, fans, jewellery and a medley of souvenirs. Everything you see is for sale, and the shop assistants are loud in praising their wares. They’re competing against in-house masseurs and vendors selling while-you-wait shoulder massages and ear candling sessions. If you’re used to opera being highbrow occasions, this “give-us-your-cash” attitude strikes an odd but cheerfully pragmatic note.

Applying make-up is an art
as this opera artiste shows
I was enjoying the sales pitch of a lady desperate to sell us a super lucky pendant for a really cheap price when May guided us firmly into to the back of the hall. There another delightful surprise awaited us: at this theatre, visitors are allowed to watch the stars get ready for the show. What’s even more surprising is that picture taking is not only allowed but encouraged.

As we have a glorious time putting our cameras to action, we quickly learn not to admire anything because every compliment inspires a sales person to rush over, desperate to make a sale.

Surprisingly, the actors go about their business without so much as a blink despite having us all underfoot. You might expect a few fits and temper tantrums from high-strung stars, but this crowd isn’t bothered. Within 45 minutes everyone is ready to go, and we’re herded into our seats.

The first act is musical. We’re entertained by a small orchestra, and then by a Zhong-Hu or Chinese viola solo. It’s light, interesting music and it sets the mood for a cheerful evening.

A musical introduction by some members
of the Szechwan Opera
Next are the opera singers. The makeup and costumes are colourful but we’ve no idea what’s going on. They could be singing a love song, declaring war, or complaining how hot they are from being swathed in six metres of draperies. When they start to wave their swords at each other in a graceful manner, we finally understand that they are sworn enemies.

Watching this made me acutely aware of the fact that you need to be familiar with the culture to appreciate the art. These people are considered among the best in the country, but as I have no idea what I’m watching, it’s impossible to value it.

When the actors hide their swords, the scene takes on a magical flavour. When a few of us Westerners clap in appreciation at a particularly skillful now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t, the frosty silence from the aficionados behind us hints strongly that our behaviour is considered uncouth.

Every time the actor waves his fan,
his mask changes colour
Our guide sees our bewilderment and whispers that this scene is from a famous battle. However, as our Chinese history is scanty, we don’t understand the significance of her hint. It doesn’t go on for long, and when they finish we all clap politely. I have the feeling though that the actors go off stage making comments about the agony of having to perform in front of ang mo boors and ignoramuses—and they’d be right!

The cultural part of the programme is now over, and the next hour consists of acts that are entertaining whether you are familiar with the language and the culture or not.

It kicks off with puppeteers who carry huge marionettes around the stage on their shoulders. There’s no attempt to put up a screen or to hide the people who are pulling the strings (or rather, pushing the sticks). Everyone just adjusts their attention to six feet above the stage, and enjoys the simple romance story on offer.

A puppeteer with his huge
marionette balanced on his
shoulders shows off his
artistic skill
When a comic skit featuring a drunk and his shrew of a wife starts, we finally understand how gifted the actors are. The comic duo incorporates Jackie Chan-style stunts into their act. The duo’s most impressive acts are balancing a lit candle on the head while tumbling over benches and carrying a glass of wine while flipping over chairs. Although we don’t understand the comic patter, the actors are so expressive that they have us rolling in the aisles.

The finale is a quick mask-changing scene. Again, we have no idea what the story is about, but it doesn’t matter. Each time the actors wave their huge fans or long sleeves, their masks change from green to blue to red to yellow and black. The split-second timing is magical and we are glued to our seats.

A comic skit by a duo who incorporate
Jackie Chan-style stunts into their act
When the show ends, the actors all come on stage and sing. It might be anything from “please buy a souvenir as you go” or “we all love our Glorious Chairman” but it’s been such fun that we all clap when they finish.

Clearly applause is now an appropriate response because the actors wave and shout friendly goodbyes as we leave. I can’t imagine Catherine Malfitano or Plácido Domingo hanging about on stage after a performance to shout, “See you all again soon!” but the Szechwan Opera team are in a class by themselves. If you ever have the opportunity, go see them perform. You’ll have a blast!

Reproduced from the July-September 2012 issue of Quill magazine

Thursday, November 01, 2012

November 2012 Highlights

Novels
1. Carry the One (Fig Tree/Penguin, 2012) / Carol Anshaw
2. The Small Hours (Virago, 2012) / Susie Boyt
3. The Black Box (Little, Brown/Orion, 2012) / Michael Connelly
4. Two Pints (Jonathan Cape, 2012) / Roddy Doyle
5. Miss Havisham (Faber & Faber, 2012) / Ronald Frame
6. The Racketeer (Hodder & Stoughton, 2012) / John Grisham
7. A Question of Identity (Chatto & Windus, 2012) / Susan Hill
8. Flight Behavior (Faber & Faber/Harper, 2012) / Barbara Kingsolver
9. Young Philby (Thomas Dunne Books, 2012) / Robert Littell
10. The Marseille Caper (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012) / Peter Mayle

11. Sweet Tooth (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2012) / Ian McEwan
12. Sandalwood Death (trans. from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt) (University of Oklahoma Press, 2012) / Mo Yan
13. The Hunger Angel (trans. from the German by Philip Boehm) (Portobello Books, 2012) / Herta Müller
14. Magnificence (W.W. Norton, 2012) / Lydia Millet
15. Standing in Another Man’s Grave (Orion, 2012) / Ian Rankin
16. Prosperous Friends (Grove Press/Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012) / Christine Schutt
17. The Testament of Mary (Scribner, 2012) / Colm Tóibín
18. Orders from Berlin (HarperCollins, 2012) / Simon Tolkien
19. The Cleaner of Chartres (Viking, 2012) / Salley Vickers

First Novels
1. Ru (trans. from the French by Sheila Fischman) (Bloomsbury USA, 2012) / Kim Thúy
2. These Things Happen (Unbridled Books, 2012) / Richard Kramer
3. The Heat of the Sun (Henry Holt, 2012) / David Rain

Stories
1. Every Short Story from 1952 to 2012 by Alasdair Gray (Canongate, 2012) / Alasdair Gray
2. Married Love and Other Stories (Harper Perennial, 2012) / Tessa Hadley
3. She Loves Me Not: New & Selected Stories (Scribner, 2012) / Ron Hansen
4. A Cat, a Hat and a Piece of String (Doubleday, 2012) / Joanne Harris
5. The Last Dance and Other Stories (Headline Review, 2012) / Victoria Hislop
6. Dear Life (Chatto & Windus/Alfred A. Knopf, 2012) / Alice Munro
7. Republics of the Mind: New & Selected Stories (Black & White Publishing, 2012) / James Robertson
8. Close Is Fine (Ooligan Press, 2012) / Eliot Treichel

Poetry
1. Collected Poems (Carcanet Press, 2012) / Edward Dorn
2. Poems 1962-2012 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012) / Louise Glück
3. First Person Sorrowful (Bloodaxe, 2012) / Ko Un
4. Liquid Nitrogen (Giramondo Publishing, 2012) / Jennifer Maiden
5. Songs and Sonnets (Enitharmon Press, 2012) / Paul Muldoon
6. Collected Poems (Picador, 2012) / Sean O’Brien
7. The Havocs (Picador, 2012) / Jacob Polley
8. Small World (Carcanet Press, 2012) / Richard Price

Nonfiction
1. Through the Window: Seventeen Essays (and One Short Story) (Vintage, 2012) / Julian Barnes
2. Tennyson: To Strive, To Seek, To Find (Chatto & Windus, 2012) / John Batchelor
3. La Folie Baudelaire (trans. from the Italian by Alastair McEwen) (Allen Lane, 2012) / Roberto Calasso
4. A Natural History of Ghosts: 500 Years of Hunting for Proof (Particular Books, 2012) / Roger Clarke
5. The Pleasure of Thinking: A Journey Through the Sideways Leaps of Ideas (Gibson Square Books, 2012) / Theodore Dalrymple
6. Among the Islands: Adventures in the Pacific (Atlantic Monthly Press/Grove Press, 2012) / Tim Flannery
7. Empire Antartica: Ice, Silence & Emperor Penguins (Chatto & Windus, 2012) / Gavin Francis 8. Raffles and the Golden Opportunity (Profile Books, 2012) / Victoria Glendinning
9. Better Than Fiction: True Travel Tales from Great Fiction Writers (Lonely Planet, 2012) / Don George (ed.)
10. Growing Up Absurd (first published in 1960) (New York Review Books Classics, 2012) / Paul Goodman

11. J.G. Farrell: The Making of a Writer (Second edition) (Cork University Press, 2012) / Lavinia Greacen
12. Titian: His Life (Harper, 2012) / Sheila Hale
13. On Wheels (Chatto & Windus, 2012) / Michael Holroyd
14. The Robber of Memories: A River Journey Through Colombia (Granta Books, 2012) / Michael Jacobs
15. J.M. Coetzee: A Life in Writing (trans. from the Afrikaans by Michiel Heyns) (Scribe Australia, 2013) / J.C. Kannemeyer
16. The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America (Doubleday Canada, 2012) / Thomas King
17. Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother (Free Press, 2012) / Eve LaPlante
18. Gossip from the Forest: The Tangled Roots of Our Forests and Fairytales (Granta Books, 2012) / Sara Maitland
19. The Lion Sleeps Tonight and Other Stories of Africa (Grove Press, 2012) / Rian Malan
20. In the House of the Interpreter: A Memoir (Pantheon, 2012) / Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

21. Jews and Words (Yale University Press, 2012) / Amos Oz & Fania Oz-Salzberger
22. Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times (University of Chicago Press, 2012) / Andrew Piper
23. On Helwig Street: A Memoir (published in the US as Elsewhere: A Memoir) (Chatto & Windus, 2012) / Richard Russo
24. Hallucinations (Picador/Alfred A. Knopf, 2012) / Oliver Sacks
25. The Invention of the Land of Israel: From Holy Land to Homeland (Verso Books, 2012) / Shlomo Sand
26. I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen (Jonathan Cape, 2012) / Sylvie Simmons
27. Artful (Hamish Hamilton, 2012) / Ali Smith
28. Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity (Scribner/Simon & Schuster, 2012) / Andrew Solomon
29. With Robert Lowell and His Circle: Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Elizabeth Bishop, Stanley Kunitz & Others (Northeastern, 2012) / Kathleen Spivack
30. Floating on a Malayan Breeze: Travels in Malaysia and Singapore (Hong Kong University Press/National University of Singapore Press, 2012) / Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh

31. Both Flesh and Not: Essays (Little, Brown, 2012) / David Foster Wallace