There are many elements to Chinese opera including that of the stories, costumes, acrobats, makeup and themes, that are recurring throughout all Chinese operas.
Beijing, or Peking opera is regarded as the standard opera of China and is always performed in Mandarin. Some universities are solely devoted to Beijing Opera, although only a couple of channels show Beijing Opera on TV. Sichuan is the other well known opera type in China, but for its mask changing technique. “Overall the art form is well known for its singing, which is less constrained than that of the more popular Beijing opera form… is more like a play than other forms of Chinese opera and the acting is highly polished” (China-Expats).
Other types of opera include: Ping, Qinqiang, Henan, Kunqu/Teacher opera, Huangmei song (Opera about rural peasants) and Cantonese/Yue Ju.
Music in Chinese opera is often made up on Erhu, the gong, and the lute. The music, much like the costumes, makeup and masks, are very elaborate and often easily explain feelings and thoughts. The opening verses of opera often set the scene and are much like the writer’s notes, which ensures that a background does not need to be made on the stage. There is often a choir singing, an orchestra and the main characters of the opera.
Costumes, like the masks and makeup, are highly elaborate and colourful. These are often made up of large and heavy head-dresses, large shoulder-pads and soft, delicate and floppy sleeves.
Stories and themes
Rather than having variations of one or two plays, there are several traditional story lines that are repeated throughout the country. It is done in this way because of the many different types of Chinese operas, and thus the same story in a different style opera is almost like a new opera in itself. I found many of these, no matter the topic, very tranquil, such as Butterfly Lovers (Story can be found here.)
The Phoenix Returns Home is a Peking Opera with the elements of love, manipulation and mistaken identity and combines dance, mime, music and acrobatics. While researching other stories that are used throughout Chinese opera, I found that love was not an element of all. There is often elements of family, deception and manipulation. This is seen in Mulan Psalm, or as many people know it from Disney – Mulan.
A very famous story in Chinese opera is The Drunken Concubine, a one person show showing the concubine’s disappointment, her drunken charming and her intentional show-off of her beauty, all because the Emperor left her at the banquet table for another of his concubine’s. This opera is most known for its difficult movements throughout the performance, “including drinking a cup with the performer’s teeth only and placing the cup on the tray by bending backwards” (China Highlights).
The old tales of China tell us that all things may grow and change. A stone may become a plant. A plant may become an animal. .An animal may become a human. A human may become a god.
Just so, a snake may become a woman. And we are told of one who did.
Who can say for sure how it began? Yet after centuries of ceaseless effort – meditating, disciplining herself, mastering the energies of the universe – this white snake took human form. Immortal now and with great powers, she longed for one thing more.
– Lady White Snake, Aaronshep