Having booked such a long stay in our hostel, we were offered complementary tickets to see a performance of Beijing Opera. It was clearly a production aimed at tourists and only tourists were in attendance, and I’m still not sure if the format was similar to an actual opera performance. I expected that it would be similar to operas in the West- a long, musical performance that revolves around a theme and follows a central set of characters through a variety of actions, aiming to inspire an emotional reaction from the audience.
What we were presented with, though, was a series of small scenes. These were introduced with summaries of the setting and previous events, and sometimes even a description of what was to come in the performance. These various snippets included a comic and acrobatic elements- in fact the opening ‘fight’ between an innkeeper and a guest, in a ‘dark’ room where they could not see each other was mimed and timed so perfectly that it caused us to laugh out loud. The scenes also showed incredible skill with more serious themes- a lover trying to follow her love sang about her sorrow, then did a phenomenal job ‘creating’ a boat with another actor, through bobbing up and down, carefully putting her foot out, etc. when they had no props other than a large oar.
Chinese opera is famous for the elaborate costumes and face painting, and the lack of set. In a way the first performance happened before the show even started: an actor came on stage and painted his face in front of the audience. He also showed us how intricate the costume is by slowly putting on all of the different layers with the help of an assistant. During the show, the distinctive lack of scenery and props was unusual, but most different from western opera was the sound. The orchestra was composed of musicians on instruments completely unknown to me. Much of the first scene was done entirely with what sounded similar to a bongo drum and cymbals. Later there were some string instruments added, but these have the mournful wailing note that the string instruments in Mongolia also had.
I left the performance somewhat puzzled. It was an intriguing experience, although I don’t know I would have been happy to sit through several hours of it.