Peking opera is an experience for anyone who has never seen or heard it. Originally one of the most popular forms of entertainment in ancient China, Peking opera lately has been losing some of its appeal to more modern diversions. Its unique style and use of old Chinese take a little getting used to, and it’s not for everyone. But it is definitely at least worth one try.
Because Peking opera is performed in an older style of Chinese than what is spoken in everyday conversation, it’s close to impossible for the average person to understand. Usually, there are giant screens on either side of the stage that display the modern Chinese translation (and sometimes English too if you’re lucky).
The costumes are intricate because the scenery is usually sparse. Faces are painted symbolic colors and headdresses are covered in gold and feathers and tassels. Originally, all characters were played by men and boys, but now women play their own roles. When you hear it, it’s hard to believe men could ever have filled the spot.
Peking opera is loud, shrill, and… Well, there’s no one word for it. You’ll either love it or hate it.
In the past the act of putting on the opera makeup was a sacred ritual that was supposed to be kept secret. But now, on occasion, in an effort to increase viewer awareness about Peking opera and improve its popularity, the opera troupe will allow a small number of audience members to come backstage and watch them apply their makeup. When I went, some of the actors even asked if they could apply makeup to some of us… We accepted of course, and ended up with white faces, huge pink eyes, and tiny red lips. (Except for the boy in our group. He was made into the legendary "Monkey King".) Our makeup artist told us it was the traditional makeup for the heroine or the princess of a given opera. The makeup was heavy and thick like clay, and I felt like I couldn’t make a facial expression because the clay wouldn’t let me.
Going back into the audience to watch the show was quite the experience too, with more of the audience watching us than the opening speech.
There are dozens of Peking opera shows around Beijing, all reasonably priced. Open any tour book or foreigner’s magazine and just pick a convenient one. [more]
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