By Thu A. Pham
This week, Beloit College has the honor to welcome the Qi Shu Fang Peking Opera Company from New York City to perform on Saturday, March 19, at 7 p.m. in Eaton Chapel. Other events to be held by the Peking Opera include a reception on Friday, March 18 at 4 p.m. in the courtyard of he Wright Museum of Art, followed by a documentary screening at 8 p.m. in Room 132 of the Hendricks Center.
Qi Shu Fang – “National Treasure of China”
Actress Qi Shu Fang was born in 1943 in Shanghai, China. She began studying Peking Opera at the age of four. When she got older, she enrolled in Shanghai Dramatic School.
Historically, Peking Opera was considered a masculine art form with all of the female roles being played by males. During the Cultural Revolution, at the age of 18, Qi Shu Fang was picked by Chairman Mao’s wife to play the female lead in one of the eight national “model operas.” Overnight, Qi Shu Fang became a sensation throughout China. The master female impersonator Mei Lanfang once praised her performance in “Fighting Thrice Against Chang Yue Wo.” She is known internationally for her complicated and theatrical performing style. She later was awarded the title “National Treasure of China.”
Few things about Peking Opera for amateurs
It has the history of over 200 years. Nowhere else in the world can you find a style of theatre with heavy, opulent costume, performers artfully singing, miming, flipping or brandishing swords. The basic form of a play includes singing (chang,唱), dialogue (nian，念),acting (zuo，做), and acrobatics (da，打). Hence, the actors and actresses in PekingOpera have to meet more requirements than those in other forms of performing arts. It usually takes a student more than 10 years of training, singing and acrobatic skills.
There are four main roles in the Opera: leading male, leading female, heroes (warriors), and especially, clowns. Clowns, who are distinguished by a white parch on the nose, are not rascals, but rather the sign of wit, alertness and humor. The theme is always based on the political and military struggle of history. However, a thorough understanding of Chinese history is not a must. The plot is usually very easy to grasp. It is the appreciation of the pleasing stylistic and artistic harmony of the dance and music, of the strength of the rhythm and designs that truly counts.
I call the audience of Peking Opera “gifted spectators” if first, they have the ability to open up to the experience and second, evaluate critically that experience. When I speak of a gifted spectator, I am thinking of the non-dramatist, of a spectator who retains his/her amateur status, the one who would hold their breath or raise their eyebrows when the staccato clanging and nasal singing of Peking Opera hits their eardrums.
Pay attention to the footwork, gestures and various kinds of body movements when you come to the performance. Peking Opera is highly symbolic, and thus is very standardized. For example, the performer has to walk flanked on each side by a flag with colored tassels to represent riding a horse. Four generals and four soldiers represent an army of thousands. When an actor flings the two sleeves in one direction while facing the other, this represents making a decision or anger, etc. As a “gifted spectator,” your imagination actually holds the stage together.
Why Peking Opera matters:
Peking Opera carries the political complexities, especially in feminism in Chinese culture. In other words, it is the female revolution, the heroic making of Chinese women into thousands of Mulans. In terms of culture, this kind of artistic form displays the characteristics of the nation: warm and sincere, optimistic and ambitious. The Peking Opera survival is a reminder of what theatre is all about. The Opera forms levitated emotions of both the performers and the audience. This is true spectacle that comes from the breathtaking human skills on an almost-bare stage. It is truly the Broadway of China.