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The Art of Beijing Opera

For hundreds of years, Beijing opera troupes have delighted audiences—from members of the royal court to marketplace crowds at makeshift stages—with rich costumes, elaborate makeup, jaw-dropping acrobatics, and tales of betrayal and intrigue.

Nowadays, the weird and wonderful operas staged in Beijing's customized theaters are more than likely of the Jing Ju style, which emerged during the Qing Dynasty. There are more than 350 other kinds of Chinese opera, each distinguished by different dialects, music, costumes, and stories.

Why go? For the same amount of time as a movie (and about $20 per person), a night at the opera guarantees you a glimpse into China's past—not to mention a fascinating mix of drama, color, movement, and sound.

To master the art of Beijing opera's leaping acrobatics, stylized movements, sword dances, and dramatic makeup techniques, actors begin their grueling training as young children. The work pays off: nowhere else in the world can you see a performer in heavy, opulent costume, so artfully singing, miming, turning flips, and brandishing swords.

Opera instrumentation consists of the percussive Wuchang, that is, the gongs, drums, cymbals, and wooden clappers that accompany exaggerated body movements and acrobatics, and the melodic Wenchang, including the Chinese fiddle (erhu), the lutelike pipa, horns, and flutes.

Neophytes may find two hours of the staccato clanging and nasal singing of Beijing opera hard to take (and most young Chinese fed on a diet of Western-style pop agree). But this dramatic, colorful experience might be one of the most memorable of your trip.

Rent It: Farewell My Concubine

Before your trip, rent Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine, a 1993 film that follows the life, loves, and careers of two male opera performers against a background of political turmoil. It also depicts the brutality of opera schools, where children were forced to practice grueling routines (think splits, balancing water jugs, and headstands).

Mei Lanfang: Gay Icon and Opera Hero(ine)

Born in Beijing into a family of stage performers, Mei Lanfang (1894-1961) perfected the art of female impersonation during his five decades on stage. He is credited with popularizing Beijing opera overseas and was so hip in his day that there was even a brand of cigarettes named after him. His gender-bending chops earned him a special place in the hearts of gay activists across China. The Worlds of Mei Lanfang (2000) is an American-made documentary about the star, featuring amazing footage of his performances.

House. Mei Lanfang's house can be visited and it looks exactly as it did when he died in 1961. 9 Huguosi, Xicheng District, Beijing, 100035. 010/6618–3598. www.meilanfang.com.cn. Y10. Tues.–Sun. 9–4.

A Rich and Curious History

Beijing opera was born out of a wedding between two provincial opera styles from Anhui and Hubei during China's last dynasty, the Qing Dynasty, in the 19th century. It also borrowed from other regional operas and Kunqu, a 500-year-old Chinese musical-theater style. Even though Beijing opera is relatively young, many of its stories are extracted from epics written as far back as the 12th century.

After Mao Zedong took the helm in 1949, Beijing opera was molded to reflect the ideals of Chinese Communism. The biggest changes occurred under the guidance of Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Traditional operas were banned; only the so-called eight model plays could be staged. These starred people in plain work clothes singing about the glories of Communism. Traditional opera was reinstated gradually following Mao's death in 1976.

The Four Major Players

There are four archetypal characters in Beijing opera: Sheng, Dan, Jing, and Chou. Each one can have variations. The Dan roles, for example, include Qingyi, a shy maiden, and the more promiscuous Huadan. A performer typically devotes a lifetime to perfecting one role.

During the Qing Dynasty, women were banned from performing, so men played the Dan role. These female impersonators were often the most popular actors. Women began performing again in the 1930s; nowadays most female roles are played by women.

[e]Sheng = Male characters: scholars, statesmen, warriors

[e]Dan = Female characters: coquettes, old ladies, warriors

[e]Jing = Warriors: the roles with the most elaborately painted faces

[e]Chou = Clowns: not always good-natured, wear white patches around eyes/nose

Where to Watch

Shorter shows put on at venues such as Liyuan Theater and Huguang Guildhall are full of acrobatics and fantastic costumes. You can catch an opera performance any night of the week in Beijing, but there will be more options on weekends. Shows usually start around 7 pm and cost between Y50 and Y200. All the free-listing magazines have information, and staffers at your hotel can recommend performances and help you book tickets. You can also buy tickets online through www.piao.com.cn; register online and pay by credit card, or phone 010/6417-7845. Piao.com will send the tickets to your hotel.

You can also get a taste of Chinese opera for free before you spring for tickets if you have access to a television; China Central Television broadcasts nonstop opera on its CCTV 11 channel.

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