“When I first saw Pei's performances on video tape over a decade ago, I was so completely overwhelmed that I seriously considered giving up my training in Beijing Opera and switching to another trade,” theater director of the National Guoguang Chinese Opera Company (國光劇團) Li Shao-ping (李小平) said, describing his first encounter with Pei Yen-ling (裴豔玲), the legendary performer of traditional Beijing Opera in China.
Hailed as a “world-class female performer,” Pei first appeared on the stage in Taiwan in 1993, then again in 1994, when her mesmerizing operatic singing and martial arts skills won the hearts of local opera fans. Invited by the Guoguang Opera Company, the 60-year-old virtuoso will join the troupe, and top local performers Wei Hai-min (魏海敏) and Tang Wen-hua (唐文華), to once again put local Beijing opera fans in awe with the five-day traditional operatic performances featuring nine pieces at the National Theater (國家戲劇院) starting next Wednesday.
A versatile performer, Pei specializes in the roles of the bearded elderly male (Laosheng, 老生), the acrobatic lead male (Wusheng, 武生) and the fiery-tempered male (Hualian, 花臉). Pei will demonstrate to local audiences the two styles of Beijing opera she has mastered: wu xi (武戲) focusing on acrobatics and martial-arts skills and wen xi (文戲), which emphasizes highly stylized acting and operatic singing.
Born in 1947 to a Beijing opera family in Hebei Province (河北省), Pei received solid training in Beijing opera during her formative years. However at the age of 12, the future Beijing opera maestro turned to Hebei Bangzi (河北梆子), a regional opera popular in the southern part of Hebei, which was ideal for tragic and heroic dramas.
Pei stayed and helped to build up the popularity of this regional opera form for over 30 years and has become China's leading exponent of Hebei Bangzi. She rocketed to international fame with the much lauded roles of Chung Kui (鍾馗), the demon-slayer, Wu Song (武松), the tiger killer and Lin Chung (林沖) from The Water Margin (水滸傳), and twice received the highest honor in Chinese opera, the Plum Blossom Award, first in 1985 and again in 1995.
Pei's operatic roots remain in Beijing opera, thought her performances have been in fact a fusion of Bangzi, Kun opera (崑劇) and Beijing opera. Though Bangzi, as a regional opera, has more flexibility and space for creative input from artists, Pei decided to return to the traditional Beijing opera at the age of 50.
Taking up the role of director of the Hebei Beijing Opera Theater (河北京劇院) in 2004, Pei advocated the development of the pure form of Beijing opera, that is, to bring the character to life not merely through impeccable skills but through strong emotions and empathy that can resonate in the heart of the audience.
During the past six weeks rehearsing for the nine traditional opera pieces, members of the Guoguang troupe all agree that it's like a dream come true to work with Pei and to see how passionately Pei treats her art. “Every time we rehearse the emotion-charged scene from Chung Kui where Chung marries off his sister to his best friend, Pei and the performer who plays the sister would both be moved to tears. That's how deeply Pei is able to affect the performers who work with her. It is hard to imagine when you consider the fact that Pei has played the part hundreds of times,” Lee said.