The Beijing Beijing Opera
Company (北京京劇院), founded in 1979 to
reestablish a tradition of
excellence in Beijing opera after the devastation of the Cultural Revolution, is back in Taiwan to participate in a joint performance with a number of Taiwan’s own opera greats. On this occasion, the visit is even more significant, as the group of more than 60 performers is drawn largely from the most promising members of the company’s youth troupe. While not well known at present, these are the stars of tomorrow.
Among the most highly anticipated of the guests is the rising star Hu Wenge (胡文閣), who is continuing the tradition of male specialists in female roles, and is a third-generation disciple of the great Mei Lanfang (梅蘭芳), who is widely regarded as having taken the art of female impersonation in Beijing opera to its highest level of sophistication. A biopic of Mei directed by Chen Kaige (陳凱歌) has recently completed a run at major cinemas in Taipei.
Hu came to his art relatively late. He began studying dance aged 5 and quickly became enamored with the beauty of female roles. He studied operatic female roles for a while under Li Defu (李德富), who was once famous for his skill with “water sleeves,” the extended sleeves of white cloth that are an integral part of the costume for female roles.
Hu became disillusioned with the future of opera and in 1987 took the bold step of staging his own drag shows. This was a time when female impersonation was not widely accepted in Chinese society, and Hu said that this move was prompted by a rebellious spirit against the strictures of society and of operatic convention.
Subsequently, seeking greater refinement of expression and thirsting for the respect given to an artist, Hu sought out Mei Baojiu (梅葆玖), son and successor of Mei Lanfang, with the aim of reentering the world of Beijing opera. It took seven years before he was accepted as a disciple, by which time he was already 34. Hu said that he could never have achieved his success without his early training, and is much esteemed as possibly the last man to receive the direct transmission of Mei’s art.
WHAT: Beijing Beijing Opera Company Youth Troupe
WHEN: Today, tomorrow and Sunday at 7:30pm; tomorrow and Sunday
WHERE: Metropolitan Hall (城市舞台), 25, Bade Rd Sec 3, Taipei City
TICKETS: NT$300 to NT$2,000, available through NTCH ticketing or online at www.artsticket.com.tw
Speaking about what made the Mei school of opera so appealing to him, Hu said that it was its lack of ostentation.
“Mei’s style of interpretation must not have any rough edges. The expressiveness must come from within,” he said. Hu will be giving a star turn tonight in an excerpt titled Peak of the Universe (宇宙峰), one of Mei Lanfang’s signature works.
At a rehearsal on Wednesday of The Jewelry Pouch (鎖麟囊), Chi Xiaoqiu (遲小秋), a leading exponent of the Cheng school (程派) of performance and the leader of the youth troupe, showed off her quality in the role of Xue Xiangling (薛湘靈) with the vocal virtuosity and command of vibrato for which this school is famous. Speaking to the press last week, Chi emphasized the range of talent represented by the youth troupe, which includes specialists in all role types, with an average age of about 25.
“We have a responsibility to carry on this great tradition,” she said. “This is also a chance for young performers to begin establishing audience recognition.”
Chi performed to a full house at the Metropolitan Hall (城市舞台) last night. Tickets are still available for all other performances.
Wang Yuzhen (王玉珍), director of the Beijing Beijing Opera Company, underlined that this visit was very much about passing on the torch. Many of the operas scheduled for this weekend have been deliberately chosen for being part of a traditional, even canonical repertoire, and are intended to show off the command of fundamentals by the young performers, many of whom already have numerous awards under their belts. Stage sets are extremely conventional, with very little to distract attention from the performers. The current visit will showcase not only performers, but also the oft-neglected musicians, with young percussion virtuoso Wang Wei (王葳) giving the beat and Yan Shouping (燕守平), one of the foremost exponents of the huqin (胡琴), joining as a special guest.