Beijing's Pride
A Peking Opera master brings purity to an enthusiastic New York crowd
By Corrie Dosh  ·  2015-09-21  ·   Source: | NO. 39 SEPTEMBER 24, 2015


Zhang Huoding (left) performs Legend of the White Snake  at Lincoln Center in New York City on September 1 (XINHUA)

New Yorkers got a taste of real Peking Opera with a brief yet wondrous visit by Zhang Huoding on September 2 featuring rare performances of Legend of the White Snake  and The Jewelry Purse --marking Zhang's first performances outside China.

The performances are the fourth event staged at Lincoln Center's David H. Koch Theater by the China Arts and Entertainment Group (CAEG), following performances of The Peony Pavilion ,Silk Road , The Red Dress  and The Legend of Mulan . CAEG is under the administration of China's Ministry of Culture and is seen as a sort of cultural outreach to promote Chinese art.

Star performer 

The diminutive, unassuming Zhang is celebrated for her mastery of Cheng school opera. The school is named for its founder Cheng Yanqiu (1904-58)--a famous male opera star popular for playing female dan roles in the 1920s and 1930s--and Zhang's challenge is to be a female singer singing as a male playing a woman. The trick of the Cheng style is to adopt a low-pitched, subtle tone.

Zhang's fans love her for more than her dulcet tones and graceful, precise movements. She has dedicated her life to Peking Opera with a singular passion. Denied entry to a regional training academy multiple times, Zhang began studying at the late age of 15 at a school in Tianjin. She made up for lost time with a dedication that bordered on obsession, practicing endlessly and catching the eye of Zhao Rongchen (1916-96)--Peking Opera's foremost star practicing the Cheng School.

As she mastered the art, Zhang thrilled the world of traditional opera with a special Peking Opera show she created at the Beijing People's Art Theater. Now a teacher and seasoned performer, Zhang's Lincoln Center performance featured many of her own students at the National Academy of Chinese Theater Arts.

The debut of a hometown treasure like Zhang on an American stage is a gesture of cultural goodwill ahead of a state visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping this month. State officials want to show off the best in traditional Chinese arts and culture, and performances like Zhang's cap a particularly China-centric year in New York culture, including the well-received China: Through the Looking Glass theme at the Met Gala earlier this year.

The state visit offers a chance to start a new era of Chinese-American relations, and a chance to redefine the relationship as cooperative and mutually beneficial. Cui Tiankai, Chinese Ambassador to the United States, said the two presidents would take the opportunity to conduct in-depth exchanges on major issues concerning global peace and development. U.S. President Barack Obama, apparently feeling liberalized in his last two years as president, seems open to publicly taking positions and taking action on politically sensitive topics. There is a very good chance that the talks could be a positive turning point for both sides.

"China and the United States should manage issues of difference through communication, sincerely respect and take care of each other's core interests, and make efforts to expand common ground while reducing differences to maintain the big picture of stable development of the bilateral relationship," President Xi said while meeting with U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice ahead of his state visit to the United States.

Real deal 

Like most forms of Chinese culture that Americans are exposed to--including food, calligraphy and kungfu--Peking Opera is often altered to appeal to a Western audience. While there have been some attempts to preserve the form in its historical state, such as director Chen Shizheng's 18-hour staging of the original The Peony Pavilion  at the 1999 Lincoln Center Festival, most classic works of Peking Opera are shortened to 90 minutes, subtitles added, martial arts scenes ramped up and props added.

Just the filming of performances represents a break with traditional Peking Opera, said David Rolston, a professor with the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Michigan. The art form should be viewed on the stage. It's a stipulation that some of his students have trouble understanding.

As opera troupes become privatized and come under pressure to increase ticket sales, the lure of a Western tour has become attractive along with the prospect of new audiences, Rolston added. Lincoln Center is "a big deal" to opera troupes, and there is a bit of a revival in the genre going on--evidenced by Zhang's performance and the 2014 Lincoln Center Festival performance celebrating China's greatest opera star Mei Lanfang (1894-1961). These two performances in particular were dedicated to keeping traditional opera styling true to history, and to preserving the art form while introducing it to Western audiences.

Zhang's selections of Legend of the White Snake  and The Jewelry Purse  are sensible picks, Rolston said, as they are both classic stories and local favorites. Legend tells an ancient myth of a white snake in Hangzhou who takes a human husband and irks a Buddhist monk. The tale has been told many times in modern culture, including a 2011 film starring Jet Li, numerous television series and even children's books.

The Jewelry Purse  follows the tale of wealthy Xue Xiangling on the way to her wedding, who selflessly gives some of her dowry to a poor bride she meets. Years later, when Xue finds herself desperate and penniless, she fortuitously meets the woman she helped in the past, who is now a wealthy woman in her own right.

Both productions are lush. No expense was spared in the making of the heavily embroidered gowns, glittering headdresses and flowing fabrics. The music is superb, orchestrated by a small and skilled group of musicians. In keeping with tradition, the stage is bare and the story is told through pantomime and storytelling.

Two lectures on Zhang's work and the history of Peking Opera were held at Lincoln Center ahead of the performances. Professor David Der-wei of Harvard University and Professor Rolston encouraged the American audience to applaud during the performance highlights.

The largely Chinese audience knew every word and every movement of their idol's performance, which played more as a nostalgic tribute for homesick Chinese expats than as an introduction to the art form. The crowd rushed the stage to take pictures of the curtain calls, demanding an encore until Zhang obliged. Her performance was perfection, the material thoughtfully prepared, but the audience was familiar.

Zhang kept her word and stayed true to her beloved art form. Purists would demand nothing less. Perhaps it is Western listeners who need to rise to the occasion and appreciate the subtle refineries of Peking Opera. James R. Oestreich, a reviewer for The New York Times , asked, "Where's a good sword fight or acrobatic brawl when you need one?"

Appreciation for true Peking Opera is small but growing in America. Certainly performances by such masters as Zhang will help in spreading the popularity of the art form, but true aficionados are rare. Reviewers for mainstream U.S. papers readily admitted their unfamiliarity with the works but called Zhang's performance a "nice introduction."

The author is deputy director of the Institute of European Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences 

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