A Lesson in Sichaun Opera to Celebrate the Year of the Dog

February 13, 2018
– By Samantha Webster, communications intern

On February 21, we welcome in the Year of the Dog with a performance of China’s Sichuan opera led by award-winning performer Madam Chen Qiaoru and guest artists from Chengdu. The performance is copresented with the UCLA Confucius Institute.

In advance of the program, we spoke to Susan Pertel Jain, the executive director of the UCLA Confucius Institute, to learn more about Chinese opera and what to expect from next week's performance.

Samantha Webster: We are excited to partner with the UCLA Confucius Institute to present a performance of Sichuan opera in honor of the Chinese New Year Spring Festival. What makes Sichuan opera different from other Chinese operas?

Susan Pertel Jain: In China, there are over 250 different types of opera. The most widely known opera form in China is Beijing opera because Mandarin, the dialect of the Beijing area, is the national language. Another form is called Kunqu, which some people know outside of China. The other forms are more regional operas called Difangxi, which means "theater of the region." A lot of the other kinds of opera, including Cantonese opera, or Sichuan opera, are performed in local languages, which are completely incomprehensible to somebody from a different part of China. In China it was traditionally said "I listen to theater," not "I see theater" (Wǒ tīng xì not wǒ kàn xì). This stresses the importance of the aural performance structure.

What holds these forms together as a genre is the fact that they use certain commonalities in their performance style. Most forms developed from an itinerant tradition where artists traveled from place to place carrying with them what they needed for the show. They relied on their bodies, voices, and costumes to create the performance. Most share a common movement vocabulary, similar costume and makeup techniques, and regularly perform on bare stage without a contextualizing physical environment other than a table and a chair or two chairs. But they could turn a table into a mountaintop, right? 

How is Chinese opera similar to or different from Western opera?

Traditionally, in Chinese opera, there are no composers or directors. How do you do that? How do you have opera forms that have gone on for hundreds of years without composers and without directors? It goes back to the idea of "I listen to theater." When an audience goes to the Chinese opera, they often know how the story ends. The repertoire mainly consists of folk plays, historical dramas, plays adapted from literature, and Buddhist tales. When I introduce Chinese opera, I say, "It’s like American football." Chinese opera lovers know the plays. They are familiar with the musical style and the local language. They can go to a play and appreciate the virtuosity of a performance. They are not always focusing on how the story ends; they are interested in how is it performed.

Chinese opera uses musical systems, which is a pool of musical material from which all music for operas is created. This musical material includes metrical structures, modes, and melodic contours and ornaments.                                  

Chinese opera performers start their training at 10 or 11 years old as dancers, singers, and actors. When the kids start opera school, they are broken up into different role types like we would have in Western opera (i.e. mezzo-soprano). In China they are also looking at their movement and physical features. You might be a strong singer, or maybe you are better at stage combat, or maybe you have a comic nature—your role type would be defined from a young age and decide the rest of your career.

In China, there is a strong tradition of amateur performers. It is common for locals to learn to sing their regional opera. Beginning in the Han dynasty, the Chinese had an examination system that tested people on poetry, history, etc. Once you made it up to the highest levels, you were sent from Beijing and appointed to be governors or mayors in other cities. Because of the different linguistic groups in China, people in these cities would form local associations. When they would get together and meet as family groups or clans, they would sing opera. There’s always been a deep connection between the community and the performing stage. The people in the audience are familiar with the operas, because they might be singing it themselves.

If you look back in the 19th century here in California, one of the first performances of opera in the state was Cantonese opera. Workers had come over from Guangzhou, southern Canton/Hong Kong area, to work on the railroads and in the mines, and what did they do? They brought over Chinese opera. Even today if you go to the Chinatowns in San Francisco or New York and walk down the street on a Friday or Saturday night, you can hear people singing Chinese opera.

Could you explain the face changing technique used in Sichuan opera?

It’s a secret. There are a couple different types of face changing that are used. One of the character types you see in Chinese opera looks like a mask, but they are not masks. In normal Chinese opera, the masks are just makeup painted on your face. In Sichuan opera, there is one technique that uses layers of silk. There are magical characters who might look at you, turn, and then come back with a completely different face.

Could you talk about the music in Sichuan opera?

Most Chinese opera performances use one musical style. Sichuan uses five. One of them is Kunqu (early form), one of them is a form related to Beijing opera, but there is a form called Gaoqiang that translates to "high melody," and it’s a cappella. The only music comes from an offstage choir or the singer. Sometimes a flute will be used for a melodic line.

How would you describe the singing style of Sichuan opera? What makes it different from other types of singing?

The pitch is not as high overall, and the placement is different. The singing style of Beijing opera or Cantonese opera is so high and placed in the front of the face. However, in the Sichuan style, the singing is a little bit lower. Their young male characters don’t sing in falsetto all the time, which is very common in Beijing opera. Since the Sichuan style is a cappella, you can really hear the control of the singer, how good they are, and how they support themselves.

What types of stories will be featured in the upcoming performance at the Hammer?      

The UCLA Confucius Institute is doing a big project that looks at a place called Dunhuang. Dunhuang is a site out along the Gobi Desert at the edge of China where people would come in and out of China along the Silk Road. At this one particular place, caves were carved out of the side of a mountain. There are roughly 700 caves; 490 are fully-decorated from top to bottom. When you go into these caves, you see the whole world. You see characters from Buddhism, images of what look like Jesus, Indian gods, and stories told from the Jakarta tales, which are tales about Buddha in his early reincarnations. What is really interesting about this place are the stories that launch an effort to bring Buddhism to people in a social setting. For a thousand years, people from all over the world shared ideas, shared religion, and created these beautiful works of art. We feel that it is important to look back in this period of time and show that masterpieces are made when people are tolerant and collaborative.

I’ve asked the Sichuan opera group to bring plays that are either from Buddhism or reflecting Buddhism or plays about the spirit world.

The plays will also focus on strong women. The Chinese have always had a tradition of female warriors, and there are a lot of plays built around women who go into battle. Sometimes women disguised as men and go into battle. The character Mulan came from a poem that was written in the 6th century CE about a woman general. And unlike Joan of Arc, Mulan doesn’t die. When I think of women warrior stories in the western tradition, they don’t end well.

Do you have any advice for Sichuan opera newcomers? What should they look for?

The stories are there. These artists really want to bring the form back to its core. In contemporary performances there might be a beautiful backdrop, but I think the coolest thing you can do is completely command the stage without anything. You do it with your bodies and voices. They don’t drop character. In Sichuan opera, like in Kunqu, they talk about "carving characters." They focus on the details—choosing the right movement, gesture, glance, or vocal phrase—for each character at each moment. It’s like a Jane Austen novel. The plots aren’t big. It’s very beautiful, and you’re really drawn in.