We zipped back to the hotel in no time flat, then had half an hour to spruce up before meeting Fred and our fellow die-hards in the lobby. He whisked us off to dinner at a local restaurant, and then to the Beijing Huguang Guild Hall
where we would see the performance. The exterior decor is strongly reminiscent of the Summer Palace, while the interior decor is strongly reminiscent of a cave:
Well, OK - a fancy-decorated cave. It was just dim, is all.
Fred escorted us in and sat us down in the back row, and then he skedaddled. I guess Peking Opera isn't his thing. We were there maybe an hour early, so we didn't think it odd that the hall was mostly empty. By the time the announcer came out to give the introductions, however, only a few tables closer to the front were occupied:
My current theory is that they have decided they shouldn't put the Westerners too close to the stage, in case they run amok or something. So we squinted from the back during the whole performance.
Peking Opera is a whole different thing. It is extremely stylized, both in terms of musical style (sung at full volume through the nose, with accompanying percussion that sounds like when my brother was a baby and used to whack Mom's saucepans with a wooden spoon) makeup and costuming style (click here for info on the four character types) and staging, with a nearly-bare square stage being typical. Chinese opera is also famous for masks whose wild colors are codes for the various character types.
Tonight's performance is a short one consisting of two short plays. The first one was called "Picking Up a Jade Bracelet". Above the stage there was an electronic sign that we were told would tell us what was going on in the scenes. Unfortunately they put about three or four English phrases total up there so we were on our own. Here's what I got out of it:
1. A young girl is sewing in front of her house.
2. She feeds some chickens.
3. A man comes along and sees her.
4. As an excuse to talk to her, he asks to buy a chicken.
5. While in the process of buying the chicken, he deliberately drops a jade bracelet:
Then he goes off and hides where he can see the girl.
6. She spots the bracelet and picks it up.
7. He reappears and talks to her:
She seems embarrassed, but she obviously likes him. After awhile he goes away.
7. An older woman (the girl's mother?) comes out of the house and talks to the girl:
The punchline seems to be the mother's humorous imitation of the encounter between the girl and the man.
According to my later extensive Internet research, this is not too far off. What I missed is that the man thought that whether or not the girl picked up the bracelet indicated whether she loved him or not; if she picked it up he was going to pop out and propose to her. This play was interesting, but since much of the humor was verbal, we missed a lot.
The second play was called "Donating a Pearl on the Rainbow Bridge". This one was more acrobatic and more like a mime, rather than a dialog-based piece, so it was more accessible to us. Or anyway, more fun to watch! It involved a girl dressed in red, escorted by a bunch of soldiers who appear to be dressed as koi: they wear blue trousers and coral tunics with a fish scale pattern on them:
They're moving kind of fast here, but you can see the colors, and get a feel for the action. She runs into a man dressed in yellow - a general? - with his own escort of soldiers, and there is a fight between the two leaders:
After that the general's soldiers do a martial dance:
and soon the yellow soldiers have the red girl cornered. This led to a marvelous acrobatic baton-tossing sequence where a yellow soldier tossed a long red wand at the red girl and she batted it back with her hands and/or feet.
One yellow soldier grew to two, then eventually four, all lobbing wands at her and she never missed one.
What I missed through not speaking Chinese is the exact identity of some of the characters. The red girl is a female fish fairy - I got that right! Or at least I knew her soldiers were fish! Here's a synopsis from this site:
Presenting A Pearl on the Rainbow Bridge, the first of three operas presented without a break, is a crouching-tiger-hidden-dragon story about a fairy maiden in red pom-poms, Linbo (Li Hongyan), who, meeting a cute scholar on a bridge, sends an acolyte to make discreet inquiries ( "my mistress has always admired your work: why don't you marry her?").
She gives him a magic pearl but he isn't really the practical type, and she spends the next half-hour fighting an army sent to arrest her for marrying a mortal, proving a dab hand with a spear and at deflecting arrows. When cutie-pie reappears with his pearl, she of the red pom-poms shows him how to use it and they live happily ever after.
I'm tired now. Tomorrow, the Great Wall!