In Search of the Orphan

An afternoon at the Shanghai Opera

July 27, 2012

Our 'fixer' in the UK, Professor Ruru Li, of Leeds University, has arranged for us to attend a rehearsal of the Shanghai Opera Company.

Professor Li's stepfather was one of the founders of modern drama in China, and her mother was a Peking Opera star, so she has some great contacts and we feel very privileged to be allowed this look special behind the scenes.

As we enter the rehearsal room, they are in the middle of a run. Apparently they will open the show on Friday. We are shown to some folding chairs against the wall. It is a light airy room and I am struck by how similar it is to any of the RSC rehearsal rooms in Clapham.

In the corner the musicians are warming up. Only their instruments are unfamiliar to me. There is a two stringed violin called an erhu, a three stringed lute called a sanxian, and a moon guitar. The reed instrument, which I think is called a suona, produces a high loud, strangled sound, which to my Western ear grates against the mellifluous strings.

The director sits at the front, before a wide green carpet which marks out the stage area, and slaps out the percussion rhythm on his large fan. At once a whole scythe of actors suddenly sweep impressively onto the stage. I make a mental note to buy a large fan before I start rehearsals in August.

The opera we are watching is the story of the only woman to rule China. It is fascinating to see this opera form, which dates back to the Qing dynasty in the eighteenth century, divested of all it's gorgeous costumes and elaborate make-up.

Indeed there are elements of these costumes around the room, what we would call rehearsal clothes: a back pack of bristling flags for an army general is tucked on top of a cupboard at the back.

The actress playing the empress wears her pale blue rehearsal kimono with long white sleeves, which she can float lightly in the air, or suddenly whip round her wrists, in an expression of annoyance or resolve. I notice that when the rehearsal is over she kneels and folds it neatly away.

The acting style, between the sung arias, is all very heightened and stylised, and out front.

It's intriguing to watch the actors projecting their words with arms lifted, and breath supporting the high style, and then amusing and familiar again, when, (like any actor in rehearsal anywhere in the world), someone suddenly forgets their words and collapses in a shrug of irritation, rubbing his face and scratching his head.

The only element of the rehearsal which baffles me is that when they are not on stage the actors lounge about or chat, or swing in and out of the door to have a fag in the corridor outside.

Someone has brought in a little child who inevitably provides a running commentary on the action. One of the musicians actually takes a call, quite loudly, on his mobile phone, and yet it doesn't seem to effect the overall concentration on stage. I actually fine anyone whose mobile phone goes off in my rehearsal room, but here clearly things are different.

There is very little stage scenery or furniture in Beijing Oopera, just a table and two chairs, all painted lacquer red. But these can stand in for a mountain top or a chariot. I like the sparseness of the story telling.

How many of these conventions will find their way into our production of The Orphan of Zhao remains to be seen. We cannot possibly learn the styles and the craftsmanship of the opera that these actors have spent years perfecting. And it would be insulting to imagine that we could do so. We will have to find our own ways of telling this beautiful and ancient Chinese story.

by Greg Doran  |  1 comment

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Aug 23, 9:31am
K.W. Brown

So many thanks for your evocative blog. This part reminds me of how Peter Shaffer's 1965 play, 'Black Comedy', came to be written.

The Chinese Opera had just made (I think their first) visit to London. The events of one play took place in pitch darkness, but were enacted before the audience in blazing light, the conceit being that we could see, but the actors were 'blind'. As those who saw the play will remember, much of the thrill came from the careful precision of the actors, the emphasis on movement, in our then much less physically-oriented theatre.

I very much look forward to more such cross-fertilisation.

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