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Peking Opera at the Kennedy Center

Jingju Theater Company of Beijing (photo by Lei Wang)

It has been quite a year for Chinese cultural organizations here in Washington. After tours by the China National Symphony Orchestra and Beijing Symphony Orchestra last year, the Jingju Theater Company of Beijing came to the Kennedy Center Opera House on Wednesday and Thursday night, for the first of two performances, another example of China's assertion of soft power through cultural means. This form of Chinese theater, called opera by analogy to its older European counterpart, was curtailed during the years of the Cultural Revolution, but it is now not only allowed but supported by the Chinese government. The troupe of actors, acrobats, and dancers, which tours infrequently, made a world tour this year, including stops in New York and Washington, in honor of the 120th anniversary of Mei Lanfang, a celebrated male performer of female roles with the company. His son, Mei Baojiu, has taught some of the troupe's current performers and presented the evening.

The first evening was a program of five short works, billed as classics created by Mei Lanfang. At its center was Farewell, My Concubine, the work that featured so prominently in the 1993 film of the same name, directed by Kaige Chen. It shows the battle camp of Xiang Yu, the King of Chu, in conflict with the first emperor of the Han dynasty in the 3rd century B.C. When the king learns that he has to abandon his position and move quickly to have the hope of fighting again, his concubine, Consort Yu, takes her own life with the king's sword after dancing a whirling sword dance to entertain him. Shang Wei brought exceptional dignity to the role of Lady Yu, matched by the agitated worry of Chen Junjie as the King of Chu. Other highlights of the first evening included Dou Xiaoxuan, with elegantly swirled swathes of cloth, as the Buddhist goddess who descends to earth in The Goddess of Heaven Scatters Flowers and Li Hongyan (pictured) as one of the warrior women often featured in Mei Lanfang's works, in Resisting Jin Troops.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, Peking Opera at Kennedy Center has the right moves, if not the best sounds (Washington Post, August 29)

Jane Levere, Legendary Peking Opera Troupe Visits New York And Washington (Forbes, August 23)

Anthony Tommasini, Mighty Women Wielding Words (and Swords) (New York Times, August 21)

Patricia Reaney, China's Peking Opera company marks anniversary with U.S. tour (Reuters, August 20)
The female roles are now played mostly by women, contrary to the tradition in this sort of theater, where the men who played women, like Mei Lanfang, were often the most celebrated artists. The only exception to this new development was Hu Wenge, the only male disciple of Mei Lanfang's son, whose performance as the abandoned, inebriated imperial consort in Drunken Beauty was the climax of the first evening. He was also the star of the longer work on the second evening, Lady Mu Guiying Takes Command, a full-length play from late in Mei Lanfang's career, where he had particularly funny interplay with Zhang Jin as the great-grandmother of the Yang clan, who almost stole the show.

The form was difficult to extend over a full-length work, judging by the longueurs in the second evening's performance, making the selection of more compact works on the first night more dramatically satisfying. In the same way, the genre was created in small venues, and the adaptation to a large modern hall, involving awkward amplification that did not flatter the voices and a sometimes overpowering group of instruments, was perhaps not worth the ability to play to larger audiences. The musicians were seated in the pit on Wednesday and off to the right side of the stage on Thursday, which reflected an often clumsy attempt to add a sort of Western-style bass line to the music in the short works on Wednesday, played by double-basses. This spoiled the simplicity of the style of this music, which is essentially a single melodic line for instruments and singer, played and sung in heterophony. The only adornment of the melody is the clatter of the percussion section, which at the most emotional points in the story can make quite a racket.

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