By Samuel L. Leiter
Chinese opera, Peking Opera, Beijing Opera—these are some of the familiar English names used to refer to traditional Chinese theatre. Broadly known in Chinese as xiqu, an umbrella term comprising over 300 regional styles, the representative one, associated with Beijing, is called jingju. Two examples of jingju—The Legend of the White Snake and The Jewelry Purse—each given a single performance, were shown this week at the David H. Koch Theater by a company from Beijing’s National Academy of Theatre Art (NATA). I visited the former play, whose plot is based on one of China’s Four Great Folktales. A version was in the repertory of China’s most famous traditional actor, the female-role (dan) specialist, Mei Lanfang, who played it in the kunqu style, although not during his sensational New York appearance in 1930.
It is now rare for male actors in China (less so in Taiwan) to specialize in female roles. Thus the big draw for the visiting productions is an actress, Zhang Huoding, described by the New York Times as “a megastar of the Peking Opera.” The petite forty-five-year-old performer, an exemplar of the Cheng school of Chinese acting, has appeared infrequently in recent years, devoting most of her time to teaching at NATA; New York audiences should consider themselves lucky to have seen her.
Zhang’s demanding title role requires extensive singing in jingju’s high-pitched operatic style; persistently graceful, highly stylized, dance-like movement and gestures; and a considerable degree of vigorous acrobatic fighting using a spear or swords. The role is usually split between two performers, but Zhang plays the entire part, neither her powerful voice, her physical agility, nor her emotional commitment ever flagging. The predominantly Chinese audience at the Koch interrupted the action numerous times with applause and shouts of appreciation.
The Legend of the White Snake, which has been treated in multiple theatrical forms as well as movies and literature, each usually with its own interpretive originality, is a fantastical, supernatural tale of two immortal snake spirits, Bai Suzhen (Zhang), the white snake, and her sassy maidservant, Xiao Qing (Xu Chang), the green snake, who set forth from their sacred mountain home to the world of humans. Bai falls in love at first sight with the humble, handsome Xu Xian (Jin Xiquan), whom she marries and whose child she is soon carrying. Fa Hai (Shu Tong), a powerful monk, knows Bai’s serpent identity and plots to break up what he sees as an unholy relationship. The now distrustful Xu turns against his beloved wife, and tragedy follows, but, eventually, all works out in a happy (if vaguely staged) way for the loving couple.
Over the course of two and a half intermissionless hours the audience is entranced by the nonstop singing (even the spoken bits are delivered musically), dazzling costumes, exquisite makeup and beards, delicate scenic backgrounds, heightened mimic behavior, perfectly timed poses and tableaux, remarkable combat acrobatics, and constant accompaniment by a small orchestra visible downstage left. Titles in both Chinese and, regrettably, clumsy English are projected on side screens. At one point a glitch left a scene untitled; when it was fixed the missed dialogue flashed by so quickly until it caught up to what was being said that the audience couldn’t help laughing.
Some may find The Legend of the White Snake’s dramaturgy tedious, since the play’s conflicts are primarily excuses for extended arias that diminish their dramatic impact; the final scenes, especially, drag out the action as an excuse for providing the actors, especially Zhang, with opportunities to display their virtuosity. Since audiences generally go to traditional Chinese theatre more for the artistry of its performers than for the tension of its drama, I guarantee that artistry is what Zhang Huoding delivers.
The Legend of the White Snake
David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center
September 2 only