I hope you’re out celebrating the Year of the Horse–Happy Chinese New Year! I celebrated by going to festivities today that were celebrations of Chinese culture.
Perhaps I’ve been most intimidated by Chinese opera, which seemed strident and opaque and made me feel very much the foreigner. What a pleasure to have Barbara Chan, a noted performer deconstruct these mysteries. Here are some highlights.
There are about 300 regional opera styles, although Peking is the most popular form. Barbara performs a Cantonese style. She explained that with royal beginnings, opera, over time, became more accessible by being performed in tea houses. Soon dedicated opera houses were being built out of bamboo, springing up all over the country. Families like Barbara’s would center on opera performance, and her uncle performed for 70 years until his death at 96. He looked half that age, perhaps from the makeup described below.
Performers were required not only to sing (Barbara sings male and female parts, requiring her to lower her vocal range an octave), but also deliver speeches of poetry, like rap she said, act, dance, and do martial arts and acrobatics. Pretty incredible.
Barbara explained that the opera only has four character types, though one actor might play more than one role and type in an evening. Sheng-m is a male, old or young; dan a female, often a married woman; jing – who have painted faces, often a fighter; and chou – wicked characters or perhaps a comic figure also with painted faces.
Key props, costumes, and gestures tell character and advance the story. Pom poms on the heads of men or women indicate a fighter. A bit counter-intuitive for us, since pom poms seem playful or for cheerleaders. Long stalks of straw on a stick, serving as a broom, might be a prop for a fairy, whose responsibility is to dust the clouds! Stage props are kept very simple, generally just a table and chair, so that ornaments, costume, and makeup advance the story.
Remember that a white stripe down the nose indicates the character is wicked. Red means loyalty, black courage. Gold or silver suggests the supernatural. Men always wear high heels, even when fighting. Women fight, too, but may also perform fan dances, which Barbara demonstrated.
Hair on women–essential. Generally, very long hair wigs are part of the make-up process. The hair is divided into 7 equal parts. Long sideburns can go down to mid-calf. The central hair, instead of falling over the face, is wiped up to 30 times with glue made of sea cucumbers or tree bark soaked in water.
The glue smooths the hair and allows it to be put on a form. Extensive pictures of Barbara’s makeup and hair being dressed showed her wig being formed into circles crowning her face, then ornaments placed in each form, before a piazi–a very large head ornament which also holds the hair bun–is placed on her head.
All this after the extensive makeup session. Most notable: creating the “phoenix eyes” which are considered pretty. Traditionally, a ribbon is wrapped around and around the performer’s head, very very tight. So tight, that some performers fainted from the stress. Regardless, the method is painful, says Barbara. Now, transparent tape is used to achieve the same effect.
What effect, you ask? Pulling the eyes up into intense slants, smoothing out the skin above and below the eyes, before red, oil-based makeup is applied and smoothed. This standard of beauty is finished off with “cherry lips.” You got it, bright red lipstick. And perhaps the secret to the youthful, 96-year-old uncle’s face.
Needless to say, the makeup and dressing requires assistance. The one face works for any parts the performer may play, so that only a change of costume is required. Still…
Barbara slipped on this beautiful, but according to her, inexpensive costume, to perform for us.
I mentioned that men wore heels, to achieve height. Women wore flats, often with tassels, as worn by Barbara, especially when their partner was short. Other women wore heels. What’s intriguing and disturbing is the way these heels are formed. It’s placed in the middle of the shoe, so that when the costume covers the performer’s foot, all that can be seen is the performer toddling along on these very tiny “feet.” Like bound feet, which had been banned, but was still a standard of grace and beauty in women.
Gestures are symbolic. When you see a character leaning over and whipping his or her head around so fast that the hair starts to twirl, this means the character is frustrated or sad. The act is so difficult, that the audience usually bursts into applause. Other gestures are like mime, like the act of drinking, covered by a modest hand to politely prevent others from seeing.
Barbara performed a sampling of the talking style and freestyle song of placing words within a certain beat, plus demonstrated a bit of the dance and acrobatic style. You can get a taste in this video.
Musicians playing instruments generally sit on the sides of the stage for opera. At the pipa
performance, of course, the master and her student were center stage. Pipa is the English name for the sound that results from plucking this stringed instrument that resembles a classical lute.
Min Xioa-Fen played traditional songs with her student, but also demonstrated a jazz piece inspired by Theloneous Monk and Kansas City Swing, which was very influential in China in the 1920s. Who knew? You can hear a bit of their new year commemoration on this video.
Finally, I gave calligraphy a whirl. Oh my. I can see how people practice for a lifetime. First, the way you hold the brush. Lightly between your middle and ring finger. Vertical. With you elbow off the table. Try that for awhile, and see how steady your strokes are. Hmmm.
Just so you know, you read the Chinese characters from top right down, then the next column down. But you write your characters from the top left. One explanation: the tyranny of right handers, taking over from traditional left-handed writing.
Calligraphy means beautiful writing, and the Chinese have it, whether from the earliest, “tall” form — geometrically carved from stone to the cursive “grass” style, so named because it’s “like grass blowing in the wind.” Poetry is everywhere, except perhaps in my calligraphic attempts!
“Fu” means fortune. May your new year be full of blessings and happiness!