|Chinese Art||Sign In | Register | Contact us | New User?|
Chinese opera is one of the oldest forms of musical theater in the world. The works are extensive, sometimes exceeding 100 acts with a true-to-the-original staging lasting several days. It was conceived as a total, all-embracing art form, encompassing every aspect of the opera, not only the music and the staging, but also the pantomime, dancing, and martial arts as well.
The most important type of Chinese opera is the Peking-opera, whose repertoire since 1790 has grown to over 1,300 pieces. In the 20th century, however, a combination of disinclination towards the West and the Cultural Revolution (during which few operas had propagandistic use) nearly drove Chinese opera into the annals of the forgotten. Thanks to its frequent depiction in traditional Chinese prints, however, it was not completely forgotten and today Chinese opera is slowly reviving.
In comparison with musical dramas of other cultures, the Chinese opera distinguishes itself with rich forms of expression. Events on the stage are reflected not only in the music, singing and action, but also the masks, the costumes, pantomime, dance, acrobatics, the martial arts and sometimes local traditions as well. Chinese opera is not staged in realistic actions and events but rather in a complex language of symbols, the understanding of which is trick to following the events on stage.
The symbols pervade all aspects of Chinese opera and achieve very precise characterizations by combining symbols. Immediately the painting of the faces, masks and the dress reveals the natures of the characters. Gestures, facial expressions and movements characterize their behavior and demonstrate their relationships with each other. Moreover the stage also uses a rich symbolism. A sparse stage decked with just a table and two chairs conveys places, atmospheres and even activities. A chair at the entrance of the stage, for example, can mean the changing of scenes. Another example of sparse staging would be a wave patterned flag representing the ocean.
Facial expressions and gestures play a central role in the Chinese opera. Songs and rhyming verses only roughly outline the events. Instead Chinese opera relies heavily on movement and on body language to expand on the events in detail. Many of the expressions are thus perceived by the audience. An important device used to accomplish this is the so-called water sleeves - long white sleeves of silk, which gracefully and beautifully move with the actor in symbolic gestures.
Unlike Western operas and musicals, instrumental accompaniment of the Chinese opera was sparse. And when there was such music, it took place directly on the stage. The two main instruments are the suona and the jinghu, the latter of which could be described as both string instrument as well as a diverse percussion instrument. The unusual sounds of these instruments mark the extremely high guttural notes and tone of the singers, who spend years laboriously learning this style.
The difference between aria and recitative is however comparable with western opera. The music is not, however, especially composed but rather a compilation of popular melodies, embedded in the predominant percussive accompaniment of the events on the stage.
Chinese opera first emerged as a popular art form in the 8th century. Emperor Xuanzong (712-755) of the Tang Dynasty founded the Pear Garden, the earliest known Chinese opera troupe. It delighted the emperor, who was very much interested in the arts, that this troupe emerged exclusively in his palace. Themes generally were known legends and myths with far-reaching basic principles, whose social, political and spiritual contents were symbolically presented.
Over the centuries diverse variations and local modifications of Chinese opera developed. But nevertheless a certain standard was gradually established. Zaju, a vaudeville-form of opera, arose by the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368). This form of opera had an established a scheme of figures who dealt with multiple changing roles: Dan (feminine), Sheng (masculine), Chou (clown) and later also Jing (men in make-up). The Zaju survives today, commonly as Canton-oprea. While traditionally men played the roles of women, starting in the 20th century, women were cast for feminine roles.
Kunqu-Opera was highly regarded and later became famous worldwide as the archetype of the Peking-Opera. Many large works of Chinese literature were originally summarized for Kunqu-Opera. This musical drama developed from simple models in the 14th century in Kunshan in the province Jiangsu. The high form of Kunqu is ultimately a result of 17th century reforms. While the Kunqu-Opera nearly disappeared around 1930, today it is protected by UNESCO, having been proclaimed in 2001 as a "Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage."
The Peking-operas that have originated from the Kunqu since 1790, after the emperor Qianlong himself embraced them, have achieved enormous popularity in China, especially during the height of the genre between 1830 and 1960. Names like Mei Lanfang (1894-1861) and Cheng Yanqiu (1904-1958)- who were famous for their female roles - are beloved, similar to Callas or Caruso in the West. In contrast to local varieties of opera, the Peking-Opera was staged throughout China and therefore represents what is today generally recognized as "Chinese opera."
The scope of the themes presented were also more broad and general. The most loved story concerns the unfortunate love between a daughter from a wealthy family and a boy from a poor family. This boy, however, succeeds in becoming a high ranking public servant to the Emperor, giving the opera a happy ending. Also common were militaristic themes, whose moral messages dramatically and emotionally confirmed virtues like veracity and bravery on the battle field.
Since the establishment of a republic in 1911, more contemporary themes have emerged onto the Chinese opera stage. Additionally, the plays were no longer staged in courts and they even sometimes ventured into western theater styles, meaning less rich costumes and giving more importance to the atmosphere of the scenario in terms of content.
The Peking-Opera lost its courtly status during the Chinese Cultural Revolution under the praisel-ess auspices of Mao Zedong's wife Jiang Qing. The traditional opera was seen and cursed as an expression of the decadence of bourgeois China. It was also forbidden to privately stage any traditional operas. And while the staging of operas continued in China, their themes were modified to agree with the ideological setting of the revolution. And thus developed the "Model Opera."
The Cultural Revolution reduced the repertoire of Chinese operas to 8 works. There were no more courtly costumes, symbols or masks. Academics, courtiers and courtesans gave way to reactionaries and capitalists, as well as to the revolutionary heroes, who united all the virtues of the communist China.
Acrobatics remained in the staging of operas, however, for its ability to confer power in victory stances. Once great artists of the Peking-Opera were driven to death or wretchedness. Famous costume makers, for whom the Street of Opera Costumes in Peking since the Ch'ing Dynasty is named and who continued their art, also suffered a similar fate. The arts and professions of the Peking-Opera, which had been passed from generation to generation, threatens to die out.
The images on this web site are the property of the artist(s) and or the artelino GmbH and/or a third company or institution. Reproduction, public display and any commercial use of these images, in whole or in part, require the expressed written consent of the artist(s) and/or the artelino GmbH.
Works by emerging Chinese artists in BUYDIRECT.