Let us take a moment to be grateful for the glorious availability of Western opera. Granted, the pandemic may mean that the performing arts are over forever, but aside from that (Mrs. Lincoln), it's quite impressive. You can easily watch many different operas from any period and in any style there is. Sure, there are composers or particular pieces that deserve more attention, but really, that's just caviling. I'm coming up on four hundred fifty and I haven't even come close to seeing everything there is, so, I mean, really. For an art form that's currently considered extremely niche and/or inaccessibly highbrow, it's doing pretty darned well, I think. If you want to learn about Western opera, you can do that. It's not a problem.
Okay, but let's say that I, a Westerner, want to learn about Chinese opera, a completely different operatic form with a thousand-year-plus history. Well...good luck with that. What can I see? Well, there's this. There's also a recording of Farewell My Concubine (which I shall watch soon). There's a very small handful of dodgy-looking, out-of-print, unsubtitled DVDs. There are some documentaries and youtube clips of individual arias. And...that's pretty much yer lot. Even if you are a Chinese person, if you don't live in an area with a thriving performing arts scene, you're not going to have much luck. For an form with such a long and rich history, they've done a remarkably poor job of creating any kind of permanent record of it. Per wikipedia: "The total number of regional genres was determined to be more than 350 in 1957, but in the 21st century the Chinese government could only identify 162 forms for its intangible cultural heritage list, with many of them in immediate danger of disappearing." I know that, given the political situation, it's hard to really focus much emotional energy on a subject like this that most people don't care about, but nonetheless, I would say that that is a goddamn tragedy.
Of course, I say that more on principle than anything else: it's not like I'm familiar with the form in any way such that I have a personal investment in its perpetuation. But I believe in art generally. Sometimes it's all we have to keep body and soul together. So. Anyway. I saw this.
Here's the story: Emperor Zheng's brother has staged a rebellion, which he crushes (and executes is brother, apparently maybe? it's never referred to again, which seems weird), but he's pissed off at his mother, who had been supporting his brother, and wants to have her exiled, in spite of his courtiers' disapproval. At a feast, Yingkaoshu tries to sway him by commenting on the food--paraphrase, but this really is the exact sense: "Don't eat crows! They display filial piety, always giving food to their mothers before eating themselves! Now owls--those guys are total dicks who murder the shit out of their mothers! Eating them is hell of rad!" I am not sure about the ornithology here. Anyway, it turns out Yingkaoshu is hiding food in his clothing to try to sneak out; when caught, he explains that it's to give to his poor aging mother so the king decides to send her food and then go there in disguise to see if this suspicious "having a mother" story pans out. It turns out it does, and said mother is hell of virtuous. This and other things make him question his decision re his own mother. Finally he decides, okay, he wants to see her again, but! There's a problem, which is that he had sworn that he would only see her again in "the Underworld." So the moderately-cunning Yingkaoshu comes up with a clever plan: he'll dig a giant tunnel so they can meet there, because that's...the Underworld. Sort of. Anyway, the king and ma make up, and everyone leaves together. Wait, now it's okay if they're together in spite of not being in "the Underworld?" Was there a proviso, "after you meet there one time, all bets are off!?" Given that he was clearly actually referring to Hell, I doubt it. But anyway. So it is.
Well there you go. Obviously, this thing is extremely heavy on the filial piety, revealing its Confucian roots. It's actually pretty darn didactic about that, especially in the last act. But I'm really not sure how to evaluate it. The last thing I want is to just be some shithead white guy going, ha ha, these Chinese people are weird and/or funny! That's not helpful to anyone. So I really, really want to underscore the fact that everything I say here should be taken with seventy-three grains of salt. I am a dumb foreigner and I don't know what I'm talking about. It is absolutely definitely one hundred percent the case that I didn't really get this. Still, since most people reading this probably are dumb foreigners also, hell, maybe it's of some use.
First, let's talk about the libretto, which strikes me as bizarrely clumsy and heavy-handed--in a way, however, that I recognize from Chinese movies that I have watched, so I don't think it's anything opera-specific. There may well be a lot lost in translation. There's the aforementioned "crow rules, owls drool" bit, and in that same act these waiters are preparing to bring out food for the banquet: "the dishes are full of eight kinds of food from both land and sea!" "What are the eight kinds of seafood?" "Shark's fin, shellfish, fish gristle, shrimp, abalone, seal, shark's lip, sea cucumber from the East!" "What are the eight kinds of land food?" "Dragon's liver, phoenix's marrow, bear's paw, tiger's kidney, camel's hump, monkey's brain, elephant's trunk, moose's jaw from the West mountain!" And seriously, what am I to make of this? Is it supposed to be funny? It seems like it HAS to be supposed to be funny. And yet, to me it just comes across as alienatingly weird. The opera showcases universal emotions, for sure. And I like that! And yet, there were only a few moments when I felt any kind of emotional resonance at all.
How about the music? Well, actually, the instrumental music here was the least problematic thing for me. It's completely different than Western classical music, featuring hell of instruments that I don't have names for, but it's straightforwardly enjoyable. It's kind of exactly what the stereotypes say Chinese music sounds like (think the famous "Oriental riff"), but it's good. Badass in a few places. Maybe it occasionally feels a little monotonous? Maybe, but overall I really can't complain.
As for the vocal music: there's a lot of spoken dialogue here, and unlike Western opera/operetta, it's not always entirely clear when the spoken ends and the sung begins. I mean, they're definitely different things, but they seem to exist on the same spectrum in a way that's totally unlike anything I'm used to. Which is fine, that's interesting, but...you know, I'm just not sure about the singing. Obviously, Chinese being a tonal language, there are definitionally going to be differences from Occidental (I'm trying not to write "Western" over and over) singing, and even beyond that it's not trying to be the same thing. But as I say: I AM NOT SURE. There are lengthy arias, but to me they are mostly not particularly gripping, or indeed musically varied. Sometimes singers would go, like, aaaaah, aaaaah, aaaaah, and these were the points at which you would often get a certain amount of applause from the audience (the applause was subdued in general, but I'm pretty sure that's just a cultural difference, not lack of enthusiasm), and I'm kind of left thinking, is that impressive? Should I be impressed? I don't get it.
(Also, for whatever reason, the speaking voice of Zheng's wife in particular, oh my god, I know I said I didn't want to sound like an uncultured foreigner, but it was JUST SO WEIRD; I wanted to burst out laughing every time she spoke--her singing sounded more normal)
Let it be noted, there are also intangible things I definitely didn't get: stuff involving the spoken dialect, and the highly stylized movements of the actors. I don't want to pretend like it's just me reacting to what I perceive as rough analogues to Occidental opera and not understanding them in comparison. The lack of understanding is more all-pervasive than that: the sort of thing where you aren't even aware of the things that are lost on you.
Of course, since this is the only one I've seen, I am also wholly unable to place it within the larger tradition, and unfortunately, there's not really much of an opportunity for that. I do want to say, though--just so I don't look like a total goon--I feel like I...could get into this. There were definitely a few moments, as long arias went on, where I thought, you know...I feel like I am sort of perceiving the appeal of this. Maybe? Maybe not. It's a flickering flame.
This definitely looks good, featuring very elaborate costumes into which a lot of money clearly went. It's clearly somebody's idea of a bid at a cultural export (the production is by Zhang Yimou, director of Raise the Red Lantern, House of Flying Daggers, and other movies, and the promotional copy puts WAY more emphasis on his name than on the composer's, presumably because it's one that more Westerners might be expected to know). And yet, I feel that that's not enough. I'm not sure how much I've written about this here, but Western opera was very much an acquired taste for me. I didn't really start to love it until I'd seen, I don't know, maybe a dozen operas. So if you want to make me like this art form which is even MORE foreign to my sensibilities, you're going to need to make a very concerted effort. This would have to just be the beginning.