Monday, June 30, 2014

Zhejiang Wu: Chinese opera visiting D.C.

Waiting for the performance in the Kennedy Center

Last Friday, the Smithsonian Folklife festival (link) began in Washington, D.C. This yearly summer festival than takes place on the National Mall and highlights cultures from around the world. The two cultures highlighted this year are China and Kenya. 

In conjunction with the festival, the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage (a program that features daily free shows at 6pm) put on a short, hour-long exhibition of the Zhejiang Wu Opera company, which had flown out from China especially for the Folklife festival. The Millennium stage series records all their concerts, and you can stream this concert for free here. Seriously, watch it.

Chinese opera is different from Western opera in a few ways. First, there is not only scenery and spectacle and singing, but also acrobatics. Additionally, the action is more stylized than with Western opera, the singing style is very different (Western audience might think it very nasal, with varied vibrato, and lots of sliding ornamentation), and the action is accompanied by Chinese traditional instruments. Wu-style opera, featured here, is a little different than Peking-style opera, its more famous relative.

As the performance is only an hour long, you can get a taste of Wu opera from the few members of the company who were able to make the trip to D.C. There are six acts:

  1. The Dragon Dance - pretty amazing choreographed dance an acrobatic feat. If you watch nothing else, watch it this.
  2. Solo Female Dance.
  3. A suona (bamboo flute) solo.
  4. Changing faces - Leaves you wondering "How did he do that!"  and at the out-of-place Chinese-ish rock music accompaniment.
  5. Operatic scene: "The Legend of the White Snake" - a traditional scene, gives a great introduction to what Chinese opera is like.
  6. Huihu solo - an traditional Chinese string instrument. It's interesting to see how a huihu player can express more with their face than a violinist because the instrument is not tucked under a chin.
  7. Kung fu performance - while entertaining, I got the idea that this scene was made up recently for tourists, and doesn't have the cultural weight of the previous acts—though I have no grounds for this suspicion, as martial arts performers are an important part of Wu opera.
The Folklife festival runs through July 6, if you are in the area.

Have any of you seen a Chinese opera before?

Vocab: suona, huihu, vibrato, ornamentation, Chinese opera

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