Culture, Music

The Beijing Opera, two centuries in the Chinese soul

It is a multidimensional art, which expresses the hopes and dreams of the Chinese people, a showcase of their culture and a particular form of transmitting ancient or contemporary stories.

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Opera de Beijing 1Ilsa Rodriguez

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It all started 200 years ago when a group of artists from the Anhui opera came to Beijing to entertain the Emperor Qiantong on his 80th birthday and began a long road indeed from the Imperial Palace, where these virtuosos became mere servants.

However, historians of this Chinese art believe that thanks to their presence on this festive occasion, the Beijing Opera could emerge and develop, an art capable of bringing anything from battlefield scenes to sentimental romances to life.

For two centuries, the opera has grown to become the soul of the Chinese nation, a showcase of their culture.

Emperatriz Cixi
Emperatriz Cixi

In its path of success and misfortune, include the active participation of the Empress Cixi, a mistress of this cultural expression that led her to squander the wealth of the empire to mount monumental works in which she participated as a screenwriter and had many ideas for the opening scene.

Besides exclusive performances, in which only a small group of ministers and personalities were invited, this wife Empress of Guangxu (1873-1908) organised several annual festivals involving sets of the Beijing Opera.

For her 60th birthday, Cixi decided to prepare 60 lavish scenes of the newly remodelled Summer Palace, which took so much money that the Imperial Navy was defeated by the Japanese, in the absence of the necessary resources to face them, in the War of 1895.

OPERAFor that reason, the great lover of opera had to spend her birthday without the pomp she had dreamed of, and that included multiple concerts of the Beijing Opera.

Famous artists

From that passion of Cixi for operatic art and her undoubted impetus for this cultural expression came the first renowned artists of the Beijing Opera, since unlike the Emperor Qiantong, who reduced the status of those artists to servants, she raised them to the foreground.

Opera de Beijing 3The interest of Cixi in opera attracted the attention of the Chinese population to that genre and the public places where the various groups of the Beijing Opera acted became places always full of people.

Among those who delighted the Empress with their performances were Yuelou Yang, Liu Gansan, Yang and Tan Xinpei Xiaolou. The latter she particularly appreciated for their ability to change from a female voice to a male one and interpret impeccably roles of both women and men.

Already in the first decades of the twentieth century, before the triumph of the Chinese revolution in 1949, there were some gaps in the history of the Opera, as there was no written collection of accomplishments because the works, performances and other details were transmitted orally.

Opera de Beijing 2With the establishment of the Republic of China, for the first time in the history of its existence the artists of the Beijing Opera received all the deserved recognition, they are assured a salary, pension and other benefits, which they had always lacked.

They sing the stories of princesses, emperors and ancient wars, the stories of new life, of the changes in society and what was happening in this country that had jumped from feudal practices to try to build a socialist society.

Twenty years later, however, the extremism of the Cultural Revolution was about to delete this particular art when it was strictly forbidden to interpret works of their traditional repertoire that were labelled as feudal or bourgeois.

Opera de Beijing 4This decision meant that the performances of Beijing Opera were reduced to only a handful of revolutionary pieces chosen by the country’s leadership and increasingly fewer people were interested in seeing the same piece of theatre again an again.

Renaissance

At the end of the difficult years of the Cultural Revolution and the beginning of the period of reform and opening, the Beijing Opera began its slow recovery process to return to reach the top position maintained today.

The reforms also came to the cultural sector and from 1976, gradually; operatic sets began to interpret the works that had been approved by the now defunct Mao Zedong (who died in September of that year) and, tentatively, some of their traditional repertoire.

Opera de Beijing 13That means the scenes returning to stories of emperors, nobles, legends and impossible love or passion, to delight the national audience.

Deng told the artists that art professionals should be innovative in their creations for literature   serves the national goal of modernisation, a call that inspired the beginning of a new era of the Beijing Opera.

In the 30 years of reform and opening, the opera has premièred hundreds of new works, with various themes and has changed the way it works. Last November the process of change for groups under state sponsorship to work under the sponsorship of independent businesses was completed.

Opera de Beijing 6The validity of this ancient art is ensured through the organisation of competitive festivals with the participation of young opera artists, which has just celebrated its second year in the Chinese capital with the presentation of 32 works.

These young lovers of this art, which combines acting, singing, pantomime and acrobatics, beside a complicated make-up and lavish costumes, are responsible for keeping current this beloved Chinese art that has been tested many times throughout history.

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(Translated by David Coldwell – Email: davidpc@hotmail.co.uk)

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