The Peking Opera genre (now known as Beijing Opera in China) was brought to Lincoln Center with charm and expertise for two performances on September 2 and 3, 2015, drawing audiences that included many from the Chinese-American community who revere the traditional art form. There was a special treat, the American debut of Zhang Huoding, a superstar in China celebrated for her stage and film accomplishments, her singing and dancing skills and her dedication to keeping Peking Opera alive.
She starred in two productions, “The Legend of the White Snake” and “The Jewelry Purse.” I elected to see “The Jewelry Purse,” an elaborate, colorful saga in which a bride (Houding) from a wealthy family takes pity on a poor bride and has delivered to her a purse filled with jewels. That changes the life of the woman who starts off poor, while a storm and flood sends the once well-fixed bride into poverty, leading her to become a maid for the woman whom she benefitted. You know, of course, that all will be straightened out by the end, with the story summarized by subtitles on both sides of the David H. Koch Theater stage to translate the Mandarin into English.
While I am not versed in Peking Opera, as one who appreciates theater and opera in general, I found the experience fascinating and entertaining. The art form is rich in traditional body moves, gestures and vocal inflections that when performed well are greeting enthusiastically by fans of the genre. The subtitles signaled particular sequences as to stylistic forms, and one could glean from the excitement and applause from the crowd perfection in the performance of such rituals, not only by Huoding but other members of the company.
The production was presented by The China Arts and Entertainment Group (CAEG), which operates under the auspices of China’s Ministry of Culture, and performed by the National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts, the company including a number of students taught by Huoding.
Even in this highly stylized presentation so steeped in tradition, one discerns elements typical of other kinds of theatricality in different cultures. There was comic relief by two very funny cast members, and of course, the plot recalls the intricate plots of many a classic opera to which we are more accustomed.
As for Huoding, she is an absolute delight, both for her movements and her impressive voice. Time and again the audience interrupted the show to give her special applause, and the same occurred with regard to other performance turns that were particularly appreciated.
The staging was elegant, with lovely soft-colored drapes, gorgeous costumes and minimal set décor and scenic effects. A storm was achieved not by drenching the cast, but by enchanting movements of members indicating their coping with the weather. Members of the band at one side of the stage performed mainly with string instruments (jinghu) and percussion.
It is a struggle to keep Peking Opera in existence. During the discredited Cultural Revolution, it was frowned upon. Also, immense discipline and training are required to perfect the art. Apparently, a limited number of contemporary students are willing to put so much effort into learning an art form associated with the past in contrast with latest entertainment trends. But there are also those determined to keep Peking opera alive, and this was an encouraging example. At the David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center. Reviewed September 4, 2015.