It’s 9am on a Saturday and Eric Thompson is wide awake. To his left, a husky woman is singing in a reedy falsetto. There is also live accompaniment: a mandolin, a wooden castanet, cymbals, a gong and an energetic Chinese fiddle.
Thompson, 21, is a soldier in Field Marshal Executing his Son (轅門斬子), one of three traditional Peking operas that open this afternoon. The role is just a walk-on, but in Life and Death of Imperial Concubine Yang (太真外傳), he upgrades to a speaking part.
“I play a eunuch and mostly just stand there, but I do say something at the beginning to announce the emperor,” said Thompson, an undergraduate student from the US.
His modest foray into Chinese opera is part of a course at National Chengchi University (NCCU). In this year’s class, 10 exchange students studied Peking opera theory, attended performances and are now rehearsing for their own shows with a local opera club, the NCCU Faculty Peking Opera Society (政大教職員國劇社). The six ladies are palace maids and the gents are soldiers and eunuchs — roles that require the least training possible. Yet even these are tough.
“We get so tired. In one play, we stand for a long time ... We also dance with long scarves that we need to cross, cross, cross a lot without tangling. It’s beautiful to the audience, but very hard to do,” said Lin Nanyu (林楠瑀), a Chinese exchange student from a Japanese university.
In rehearsal last Saturday, the maids were scolded by the club’s hired directors for missing a cue, for walking too slowly and then for walking incorrectly. In a genre utterly reliant on symbols, a minute difference could wreck everything. Walking in a circle with a certain circumference, for example, tells the audience that the performers are traveling far.
“We are not doing that well,” remarked Jasmin Schymassek from Germany.
Professor Cheng Kuo (郭貞), who created the course, is inclined to agree.
“There are challenges. Most don’t understand Mandarin Chinese, so they can’t listen to the speech and know when to move ... Besides, in Peking opera, it takes a performer years to walk perfectly.”
It takes years to get good, but Kuo feels strongly about introducing students to Peking opera, even if only superficially. In the 1970s, her father took her to traditional performances in real concert halls — an awing experience that burgeoned into a love affair with the classical operatic tradition years later when she was an undergrad. So Kuo knows that what begins as a casual interest could later become a full-fledged enthusiasm for a genre that's struggling to attract new audiences.
The 1970s were the glory days for Taiwan’s Peking opera. Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) called it “national opera” (國劇), an exalted title that he matched with grand government subsidies. Every year until the 1990s, his Ministry of National Defense paid for full-time troupes to perform for the public and at army, navy and air force bases to keep the soldiers thinking about China.
As retaking China appeared less and less realistic, the central government gradually withdrew its patronage from the genre, which is now widely known again as Peking opera. Most troupes have disbanded, and the few that remain are barely staying solvent without the past scale of government funding. Most, in a bid to expand the market at home and abroad, have adopted western story lines and special sound and lighting meant to make the show more appealing.
Today, ardent fans like Kuo practice the original form and work hard to keep it alive. But they know that Peking opera doesn’t have the sort of charm that appeals effortlessly to new audiences.
“It’s bare bones on the stage. It’s a table and two chairs,” said Kuo.
With a little prodding, Kuo’s students have learned to perceive finely tuned techniques behind stock roles of the genre. “Each character has his own way of moving. There is a lot of thought and work behind everything you see. For example, the general has to move in a certain way — it’s got to be round,” said Thompson, kicking his legs. “I can’t do it. Still. It’s really special.”
But they are not opera buffs yet.
“The music is not to my taste,” said Thompson with a laugh.
Schymassek agreed. “The show looks beautiful, but the music is noisy,” she said.
And like most of her classmates, Schymassek continues to find the librettos in archaic Chinese inscrutable. But, she says, that doesn’t necessarily spell a death sentence for Peking opera’s prospects in the foreign demographic.
“European operas are hard to understand too — they are in different languages like French, Italian, sometimes German. These can be made easier for different audiences, and Chinese opera can do something like that too. Maybe with [English] subtitles,” she said.