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7 October 2006

I wrote recently that the good part of being a critic was that you got to see all the shows and the bad part of being a critic was that you had to see all the shows.

I left out that one of the thing about being a critic is that sometimes you have to see a show you had absolutely no desire to see and end up being pleasantly surprised.

When you grow up in San Francisco, especially in the area where I did, near both North Beach and Chinatown, you are surrounded by Chinese culture, a culture you pass through without ever really learning much about it.

ChineseOpera1.jpg (91701 bytes)I remember going into a museum in Chinatown once where there was a display of costumes from Chinese opera and in the background was playing the music from one of the operas, which, to my western ear, sounded like one very long cat fight. While it was an interesting oddity, I couldn't imagine spending an entire evening at a performance.

(If you've never heard Chinese opera check this page for some links to Real Audio clips.)

So I was less than enthusiastic when I learned that the School of Chinese Opera was bringing "The Colorful Essence of Beijing Opera" to campus and I would have to review it. For one thing, since I knew absolutely nothing about Chinese opera, I was afraid that I would sound like a total idiot in my review. I remember the woman who reviewed the Kabuki theatre which came through here many years ago and said that it just looked like "a bunch of men in drag."  I wanted to be a little more intelligent about it than that.

ChineseOpera6.jpg (22195 bytes)Thanks goodness for the Internet.  By the time it came to actually attend the performance (which I did with my friend Nancianne, since Walt was off at the symphony in San Francisco), I had begun to learn about Beijing Opera, which, I learned, did not mean that the performing group was from Beijing, but rather indicated a style of Chinese opera.

It's safe to say I won't be buying a CD of music from any Chinese opera, but the experience of attending Beijing Opera is so much more than just music (which, to my western ear, sounds like a catfight).  The costumes, the makeup, the acrobatics are all just amazing.

This was a revue, presenting individual numbers from 9 different famous Chinese operas, with such names as "Yan Yuhuan Gets Drunk," "Golden Monkeys Welcoming the Arrival of Spring," and "Madam Mu Gulying Becomes a General."  Each was introduced, in Chinese, by the director of the company, who had a translator whose English was almost as unintelligible as the gentleman's Chinese.

The surprising thing was the difference in theatre etiquette.   People who were not performing sat at the back of the stage and chatted, plainly within earshot of people in the audience. 

ChineseOpera1.jpg (91701 bytes)My favorite number was called "Tiam Nv Scattering the Flower," which tells the story of Tiam Nv, sent by Buddha (who is too busy to go himself) to scatter flowers at some ceremony, which is not named in the program.  This is obviously part of a longer opera.  Tiam Nv has these long streamers of fabric which she waves, circles, and twirls around.  It was absolutely gorgeous.

One wonders what these numbers would be like on a full stage in a big theatre, as they would be in a full-length opera, which the people sitting next to us, who were more familiar with Beijing Opera than we were, explained.  Instead of one person on stage, we would be seeing a full stage of costumed characters.

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It was a short evening, only an hour and 45 minutes, but that was enough.  We saw lots of martial arts, lots of beautiful set pieces, and had a good feeling about what it was all like.

Best of all, I don't hate Chinese opera any more.  I enjoyed it so much that I intend to go to a free costume and make-up demonstration on Friday, just to see how it gets put together, even though my review has already been writtng.  (I admit, it's a good photo op!)

On the heels of yesterday's rant, you must read Steve's entry today.


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