Peking, or as it called sometimes Beijing, opera appeared relatively recently – in the XVIII century in China. In 1790, four provincial theatrical troupes gathered in the capital to give a first performance for the imperial court. Basic features of Pecking Opera have developed during the next twenty years. Since then it has undergone no significant changes either in the form, or themes of performances. Nowadays modern spectators are watching essentially the same show that the Chinese theater devotees saw in the last century. And, surprisingly, it only adds popularity to modern Pecking opera. So, we are going to discuss Pecking opera with more details, including style and characteristics of the music.
Pecking opera is a special unique blend of theater, mime, acrobatics, circus and carnival action. Wichmann stated that “Beijing Opera is a synthesis of stylized action, singing, dialogue and mime, acrobatic fighting and dancing to represent a story or depict different characters and their feelings of gladness, anger, sorrow, happiness, surprise, fear and sadness.” It is believed that the above numerated constitutes show its essence. And thinking about its appearance it is necessary to mention that its roots were found in ancient street performances. Inheriting the best traditions of the Chinese National Theater, Pecking Opera is artistically raised above other local theatrical genres, and took the particular position among them. It is important to add that strengthening of the political and cultural influence of Beijing contributed to the spread of Beijing opera across the country. In such a way the genre has received national recognition due to the most fully embodiment of the specifics of ancient theater.
The scene in Pecking opera does not take up much space, the scenery are very simple. The characters are clearly defined and among them we can find male, female and comic roles, and also a hero with different masks. It means that masks in Pecking opera are rather complicated combination of makeup and accessories and the mask represents a particular hero of the opera, and serves as the identification mark of this character. Representatives of the above described four roles can be both positive and negative in their characters, and the audience can identify their nature by the mask.
No less important attribute of the performance is a costume. Describing traditional costumes we should mention that in Pecking opera they visually and thematically combined with a mask and often the same palette of colors and shades are used in masks and costumes, emphasizing the nature of the character. Traditionally, all costumes are manufactured by hand, and the most successful ones are used by actors for several decades.
The repertoire of Peking opera is traditionally based on classical Chinese musical remaking works, or on historical fiction. Emperors and concubines, wandering monks and soldiers, officials and scientists are the main characters not only of classical literature of China, but also of Pecking musical drama.
Thinking about music in Pecking opera it is necessary to mention that musical accompaniment creates an orchestra or two, consisting of traditional Chinese instruments. Percussion is played by one of the most important roles – being both a musical instrument, and an indicator of what is happening on the stage. By the sound and tone of percussion viewers can determine what happens on the stage and what the characters of the action want to express – anger, joy, fear, surprise or happiness.
According to a variety of different descriptions of Pecking opera it is necessary to mention that music in the Beijing opera is a special subject. None European composers did come in a head to hear the music in the cosmic sounds of the universe, and then organize it according to the laws of the universe, that are established also by the universe. Chinese composers firmly believed that if you do not obey these rules, then they may occur chaos and confusion. Examining Pecking opera’s music Heisey stated that “The music of Peking opera is that of the ‘plate and cavity style’. Its melody with harmonious rhythms is graceful and pleasing to the ears. The melody may be classified into two groups: “Xipi” and “erhong”, guiding pattern, original pattern, slow pattern, quick pattern, desultory pattern being their chief patterns.” In addition to this Hsu emphasized that “the performance is accompanied by a tune played on wind instruments, percussion instruments and stringed instruments, the chief musical instruments being jinghu (a two-stringed bowed instrument with a high register), yueqin( a four-stringed plucked instrument with a full-moon-shaped sound box), Sanxian( a three-stringed plucked instrument), suona horn, flute drum, big-gong, cymbals, small-gong, etc.”
Analyzing existed situation in the country and outside influences of other countries on Pecking opera we see that due to the continuous development of Chinese economy and the acceleration of modernization of the country before the artists of the genre of traditional Chinese drama, nowadays the question how to inherit, preserve and promote traditional performing arts of China has been arisen. It is good that artists of Pecking opera as one of the most representative of the National Performing Arts made the first steps towards reform and change. Listening to different new performances of old plots in Pecking opera we can find successful synthesis of traditional Pecking opera with elements of Western symphonic music. Thinking about such interesting use of symphonic music as a kind of outside influence we see that colorful symphonic music is organically woven into the fabric of Pecking Opera arias, creating exciting images of the scene. Thus, the use of symphonic music in the staging of Pecking opera is a new venture and a kind of creative search in the eyes of many artists. According to Goldstein we can read that “the art of Peking opera should keep pace with the times. We think about how to convert a Peking opera, to make it in tune with our times. We must give serious consideration to the heritage and continuously develop the art of Peking Opera, because innovation and transformation are the soul of progressively developed Chinese nation. Continuity and innovation should be combined together.”
Thus, taking the above stated into the consideration it is possible to come to the conclusion that Peking opera was deservedly recognized by UNESCO as one of the greatest achievements of world culture. And it is quite true, as Pecking opera, despite its rich history, is a harmonious mix of modernity and tradition, beauty and plastics, wisdom and philosophical meaning of life.
Goldstein, Joshua S. Drama Kings: Players and Publics in the Re-creation of Peking Opera, 1870–1937. University of California Press, 2007.
Heisey, D. Ray. In Chinese Aesthetics and Literature: A Reader. Ablex/Greenwood, 2000.
Hsu, Dolores Menstell. “Musical Elements of Chinese Opera”. The Musical Quarterly 50 (4), 1964.
Wichmann, Elizabeth. Listening to Theatre: The Aural Dimension of Beijing Opera. University of Hawaii Press, 1991.