The World Music Institute wrapped its National Heritage Masters series in NYU's Skirball Center on May 2 with a tour-de-force of Chinese Opera performed by the Qi Shu Fang Peking Opera troupe. Continuing a tradition that is centuries old, Peking Opera (a.k.a. Beijing Opera) is an honored cultural medium in China, bringing historical dramas, romances and morality lessons to the general populace in a dynamic presentation that predates the electronic age.
Masks, makeup and costumes make Peking Opera essentially a visual experience, comparable to the exuberant pageantry of the New Orleans Indians during their Mardi Gras theatrics in the U.S. Kings, spies, heroes and lovers are depicted in elaborate detail and often put in frenetic motion that makes the performance more thrilling than the actual history could ever have been. Because much of the drama includes battles and duels, martial arts and gymnastics are prominent in Peking Opera and it was the fearlessly precise physicality of Qi Shu Fang's ensemble that drew the loudest applause.
Qi Shu Fang is emblematic of the form. Like many in the group, she comes from a performing family and has been in training since early childhood. In the war drama that concluded the evening, "Water Engulfs Gold Mountain," she showcased both her bellringing soprano and her martial arts prowess. As a performer in China, Ms. Qi has seen Peking Opera emerge from the ideological restraints of Mao Tse-Tung's "Cultural Revolution," and struggle with its new challenge to retain relevancy in a new, consumer-driven culture. Currently residing in New York, Ms. Qi dedicates herself to Peking Opera with a vigor that transcends mere preservation, as was evident that evening.
Unlike Western drama, symbolic representation in Peking Opera is never subtle. Everything is vividly depicted and obvious, just as it was when lanterns and dazzling costumes were the available technology. In the opening act, "Monkey King," the cast's faces are painted to render them as living puppets. The title character is unmistakable, and his trickster gymnastics set him apart from the lackeys who try to outfox him. For the romantic drama, "Water For Sale," the two lovelorn women are portrayed as living flowers whereas "Fighting In The Dark" showcases inventive martial arts to depict an unintended duel between two allies who are unable to see each other.
Driving the action was a traditional Chinese orchestra which performed alongside the cast just offstage. Comprised mostly of drums, gongs and cymbals, with lutes and strings providing spare melodies, the music was relentlessly percussive—whether announcing a character, cueing an action or depicting a battle. With its whipcrack presence, the orchestra was practically the evening's ringmaster, and the total event did at times resemble a circus more than an opera. As gymnasts tumbled and fighters moved with incredible precision, the audience could rightly assume that the goal of the Qi Shu Fang Peking Opera was to bring the unimaginable to life. Prior to this, one could only expect such hair-breadth evasions and gravity-defying feats from Bugs Bunny or Wile E. Coyote. To see such action live, without the use of animatronics or "Crouching Tiger" wiring, was a terrific night's entertainment.