The Kunming Opera
The Beijing Opera (formally known as the Peking Opera) is a world renown expression of all things Chinese. It's a mixture of singing, dancing, drama and martial arts. I've seen it a bit on television, and I really like it. The music is accessible in a way that makes you want to hum along once you get it. The way in which people move on stage, their gestures and staging is quite different from the way in which Western actors use the stage. The set design rivals the finest Italian operas. The make-up reminds me a bit of kabuki theater in Japan. The musical instruments used are classically Chinese and the songs are as familiar to them as the best works of Rogers and Hammerstein are to us.
I asked some of my friends if they had any Beijing operas playing in Kunming. They said that there was some of that here, though it is a little different, since we're in Kunming. Good enough, I figured, and so one afternoon we made our way to a small structure a top a big one in Kunming's public square.
Inside, this room, I found the Beijing opera equivalent of a Karaoke bar. Nobody was paid to perform that I can tell, members from the audience came up to sing as they wished, and the musicians seemed to come and go as well. In short, this was a Chinese classical music jam session.
Everyone seemed to know all the songs. My host could even hum along since she seemed to know the songs as well. Interestingly, there were times, when the audience, in the middle of song would clap with appreciation. Occasionally this would happen after a singer held a note for a long long time, so I understood that they were clapping for the singer's abilities however, at other times, they would just clap for no apparent reason in the middle of the song. I never could figure out why. Perhaps the singer was adding some extra words that complemented the crowd or something. I don't honestly know. But I did make it a point to clap knowingly whenever the audience did.
Here are a couple members of the audience jamming to the oldies. Their singing was pretty well drowned out by the music. I saw speakers on the walls, but there were no microphones to be found. The large object in the right foreground is a guy with a pair of small cymbals that he would crash together right after each song. And I do mean "crash".
The guy in front is the drummer. With his left hand he worked a couple of sticks that slapped together, and with the right hand he would strike the drum in front of his legs.
His drumming wasn't used for rhythm purposes. But as accents to thoughts. In Beijing opera, whenever something happens that requires emphasis, the drums go to work. In the West we call this a "rim shot" which is used to designate the punch line of a Burlesque stand-up's jokes. The drums and cymbals are also used for scene changes. Or as we would say in the American musical... "A little traveling music."
When exiting a room in the hospital that I'm working at, we've gotten into the habit of mimicking these percussive effects and the dramatic walk of Beijing opera actors, this, to the amusement of some of the doctors and the irritation to others.
Two Erhu players and a lute player. I don't think the proper name of the stringed instrument in the back is a lute, but that's the best word I can use to describe it. All three instruments played in unison, though the two Erhus were separated by an octave.
The music is very subtle in its pitches. Lots of quarter tones, rather than the half and full tones that we're accustomed to in Western music. To put this in layperson's terms, instead of the music being limited to the black and white keys on the piano, they have notes in between that we don't use in the West.
One thing that they don't seem to have, at least among these players, was volume dynamics. There was just one volume for each and every song, loud.
Behind the musicians are a couple of men removing a board from a window. The sun had recently come out and they were opening the windows, or at least removing the boards that had been tied in front of the windows with wire.
The average age of the members of the audience was 55 years.
As per usual, they sat me down in front of the crowd and as I walked through the room to take my seat, I was the subject of intrigue which I haven't yet fully come to appreciate here. On the other hand, we all had something in common in this room, a love of music, and so, the "thumbs-up" sign that I got from some of the people was well taken. They were happy that a foreigner would come and listen to their classical music.
About 80 percent of Kunming's population have embraced Western fashion (though not necessarily Western fashion sense, but that's another issue), however, you'll see that among the older folks, they still wear the navy blue garb often associated with chairman Mao's revolutionary days.
Chinese classical music is a wonderful thing. If you have a chance to witness Beijing opera, I highly suggest that you do. I haven't yet been able to see the real thing for myself, except on TV, but it looks great. The fun part is finding meaning in the words that you can't understand.
Since, as in Shakespeare's days, there are no female actors, the men who play female parts have truly mastered falsetto singing. I've found many hours of enjoyment performing Beijing opera in falsetto voice here. If you're one of those who know me, reading this article, be sure to have me do some Beijing opera for you when I get back to the states.
Though you might have to buy me a drink first.