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The Soul of Beijing Opera: Theatrical Creativity and Continuity in the Changing World

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Peking opera

Peter Hook. Besides those skills, actors must also master very demanding singing and recitation skills. Though it seems very easy and natural, handling them is actually very demanding, and students practise it for years. These silken strips extend the actual movement of the actor. They can also indicate several things, such as talking sides or presenting gifts, or they can simply express powerful emotions. Other supporting techniques are the fan skills, related to the handling of the fan, which can be used in many ways, for example as a symbol of many things, such as a wine cup, a butterfly etc.

Further skills with a beard refer to the many ways in which an artificial beard can be manipulated. Anger, thoughtfulness, hesitation and many other moods can be expressed by the handling of the beard. Further supporting skills are related, for example, to the manipulating of the hair and the handkerchief. In the non-naturalistic, symbolic acting style of the Chinese theater, many things can be told or illustrated by these supporting skills.


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A good example is the riding whip skills. Riding a horse is indicated by a riding whip the actor holds in his hand. Peking Opera professionals divide the acting skills into three realms.


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Young people are still being trained Beijing Opera. They generally start their training at age 11, going to one of the several Beijing opera academies around the country aimed at producing professional performers. Lots of weapons were on stage at the Beijing Opera Academy of China here the other day. Teenage future opera stars were armed with lances, spears, swords and daggers as they carried out an elaborately choreographed, intricate, stylized and acrobatic fight scene, all to the clash of cymbals, drums, wooden clappers and a substantial orchestra of Chinese string and woodwind instruments.

The early training lasts for six demanding, rigorous years. Given that Beijing opera is fading in popularity, especially among the younger generations, it seems strange that so many young people would want to go through it. There are a lot of martial arts movies, and our students are all good at martial arts. Some of them become popular singers or actors. Today we choose one out of Opera has traditionally been important in passing on Chinese culture from one generation to another. Most Peking Opera stories come from Chinese history, theology, cosmology and literature and legends.

In a typical Peking Opera, four or five heavily-made-up singers stand under trees and act out a sad love story. There is generally some kind of moral message. Some traditional Peking Operas are over seven hours long.

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After the couple meets and has a few rendezvous, they come to the realization they can not marry. The women character commits suicide. After the man sings a sad song on her grave he too kills himself. Another famous Peking Opera story is about a ghost longing for his life on earth. The plots of Peking Operas are often inspired by natural disasters, revolts and fairy tales. Popular operas include are "Havoc in Heaven" about a clever Monkey King who foils attempts by the gods to capture him ; "A Drunken Beauty" about a Tang dynasty concubine who turns to drink when the emperor passes her for a rival ; "The White Snake" a tale of demons and the power of love ; "A Fisherman's Revenge"; "The Water Margin"; Huozhuo about a ghost that misses her mortal lover ; and "Assassinating the Tiger General" about a concubine who seeks revenge for the death of her emperor lover by seducing a general, and then killing him after getting drunk him and then committed suicide herself.

There are, however, also clear differences between these two styles. As stated already, kun operas employ southern melodies as well as sophisticated and complex poetry. Because the poetic scripts were usually performed from the beginning to the end, the plays were often very long. To be fully appreciated kunqu required a deep knowledge of literature. In Peking Opera the written play is generally only a kind of working script, not a piece of literature.

Generally speaking, the authors remained anonymous and in many cases the scripts were compiled by actors. The scripts include only a very few, if any, stage directions. This is probably because they were written in the context of established theatrical conventions which were familiar to all the performers and the audience. The dialect used by the Peking actors is predominantly Mandarin Chinese, although it contains elements from other dialects as well. The Peking opera plays can be divided into two basic groups.

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The wu plays are regularly based on the historical stories of heroic battles and they may have patriotic overtones. The Manchu rulers were originally warriors, and thus the wu plays suited their taste better than emotional wen plays. The wu plays require vigorous, often violent action, such as fighting, acrobatics, sword display etc. Thus it was through the wu or the martial repertory, which dominates the Peking opera repertory, that the martial arts and acrobatics became an inseparable element of the Peking Opera.


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Peking Opera repertory can further be divided according to which skills or aspects are emphasised in the plays. In the Peking opera tradition it is very common that whole plays are not always shown from the beginning to the end. Instead, a performance can concentrate on one act of a whole opera.

Kinds of multi-act performances, called zhexi che-hsi , are also very common. They consist of famous highlights or single acts from popular operas.