Jingjiu—Peking Opera

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Photo by China National Peking Opera Company and Sadlers Wells

I was privileged to see China National Peking Opera Company perform 'Warrior Women of Yang'. The story is set in the Song dynasty (around 1000AD) when there were repeated attacks on the Chinese Empire from outside. With the male leaders of the Yang family dead, the women, led by a shrewd matriarch, take on the leadership to defeat the enemy.

The first half of the show carefully lays out the characters and plot, and the second half is a series of spectacular set-pieces showing the battles and eventual victory.

Peking Opera (Jingju) is a distinct theatrical art form, reflecting ancient traditions but taking form in the 18th century. As in western opera, performers sing to advance the plot and especially to explain the motivations and feelings of the characters. There is also spoken dialogue, martial arts and acrobatics, much of which is stunningly daring and exciting. Above all, there is precise, stylised movement and choreography. Characters have their own styles of movement, reflecting their role and status within the story and there are numerous detailed movement traditions, such as the 'false step' which mimics the gait of ladies who have their feet bound to make them small, and which reflects their delicacy and refinement.

The experience is almost overwhelming. Women’s voices, spoken and sung, are piercing and intense to western-trained ears. Chinese languages and dialects use pitch and glissando to convey basic meaning, rather than for emphasis and emotion as most european languages do. This shapes theatrical speech and song, which can seem artificial and exaggerated to a westerner with long sweeps of tone and a forced vocal, almost like a counter-tenor. At times, the changes in pitch can seem at odds with the emotions: what in western music would be a caricature can be deadly serious in this art-form.

Soon, though, you become used to these differences and are carried along by the story-telling, helped by astonishing costumes and sheer spectacle. I am sure that there was much more to this performance than I realised, with meaning to the details of make-up, movement and costume that were probably lost on me. Even so, I loved it and felt privileged to have met Peking Opera at Sadlers Wells.