Sunday, 12 October 2008

The Chinese Opera

We made it! We made it to the Opera! The Chinese Opera!

Last semester when I arrived in Shaoxing, I discovered the Opera House. Apparently modelled on the famed Sydney Opera House. As one of my goals was to learn as much as I could about Chinese culture, I was keen to attend a performance of Chinese opera. I asked students, and at our International Exchange office. I think everyone thought I had lost the plot. Chinese opera is not popular with the young folk of China now, anyway, and despite the promises of a number of people to get back to me with information, none did. I did visit the box office of the Opera House but no one spoke English, and I came away with a flyer, all in Chinese, and in the end didn’t get anywhere with it all.

In the second week after I returned to China, we met a distinguished gentleman from the local opera, who promised to get information to us about local performances, but he too failed to do so.
So one day I again approached the box office of the Shaoxing Opera House, and found out that a famed company from Sichuan was performing this week, and we duly booked tickets. That in itself was hilarious. We had decided to pay top money for the tickets – and when attempting to negotiate our preferred seating found some challenges. No English spoken again. But we did get our six tickets in the front row. Sign language, some Chinese, and lots of pointing. The girl seemed to indicate that the theatre would be full. Anyway, we felt it quite an achievement when we left with our tickets.

Later another couple expressed interest in attending with us – and they easily managed to get tickets. The theatre was certainly not booked out!

So last night, in good time we arrived at the impressive theatre on the edge of city square in Shaoxing. The “opera house” if that is what it is really called, was a spectacular sight, all lit up. We easily managed to get in and into our seats. The theatre was quite impressive. Comfortable seats and even the information to the audience about not taking photos etc was in Chinese and English. I wondered if they did that only on nights when they knew a few “foreigners” were in the audience.

The performance started right on 7.30 pm, and continued until 8.45 pm. No interval. The performers certainly worked hard during that time. Chinese Opera is a mixture of singing, acting dance, and acrobatics. The story was of a heroine, and a bad man. But what the whole story was about we did not understand. The performance was in a traditional ancient Chinese language, and on either side of the stage were electronic signs that featured the dialogue in Chinese characters. Of course we did not understand.

The costumes were amazing. Colourful, different, beautiful. The sets were excellent, the performance was most interesting, despite our obvious challenge in understanding all that was going on. The acrobatics were great. There was even fire spitting!

Between the stage and audience, and hidden from us all was the orchestra pit. Almost 20 musicians played traditional Chinese instruments. One of my favourites is the halusi.
At the end, the full cast appeared on stage to much applause and the key performers were given bunches of flowers. There was a standing ovation and people walked to the front of the theatre to applaud and peep down at the orchestra.

When the performance was over, our group congregated in the foyer to discuss briefly what we had seen. We were the last to leave – it seems that everyone left the theatre environs immediately after the show. Yes, we did have our photos taken in the theatre by audience members. Nothing unusual for us though.

Just before we were asked to leave, there were a couple of people standing looking at us – and the young man said he was so impressed to see so many “foreigners” in attendance. We got chatting as we left the theatre and it appears that he, a Chinese from Sichuan province, is also a teacher at the same university as us. He quickly gave me his name card, and has offered to keep us informed of other cultural performances in Shaoxing.

We all agreed it was a good night, well worth going despite our obvious lack of comprehension of it all.

I can tick that off my list of things to do in China.

For more information on Chinese opera - click here or here

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