21 April 2012 (Sat)
On the Stylistic Schools of Laosheng as Exemplified in The Wild Boar Forest, Wu Zixu and Beating with a Gold Brick
The Wild Boar Forest was a famous production in the 1930’s starring Yang Xiaolou and Hao Shouchen. About ten years later, Li Shaochun and Yuan Shihai staged a revised version and it was met with great success. The film version, which was further adapted to produce a more eloquent storyline and better action, was made in the 1950’s.
In late Northern Song Dynasty, Lin Chong is the Arms Instructor of the eight hundred thousand strong Squadron of Imperial Guards. Young Master Gao Shide, son of Marshal Gao Qiu, is enamoured of Lin’s wife so he sets a trap to get rid of him. Unwittingly Lin is led to the White Tiger Inner Sanctum and is accused of trying to assassinate the Marshal and sentenced to banishment. On the way to Cangzhou, the guards are bribed to kill Lin. Lu Zhishen happens to be passing by and saves him. On arriving in Cangzhou, Lu Qian burns the haystacks down, with the intention of killing Lin in the fire. Lin uncovers their treacherous scheme and kills Lu before going to join the rebels on Liangshan with Lu Zhishen.
Wu Zixu is a traditional full-length play famous for being a formidable challenge to actors in the laosheng (old man) roles, whether in terms of singing or in acting. The saga of Wu Zixu is taken from many sources, including the chronicles Zuo Zhuan and Shi Ji, and the Qing novel, Romance of the Eastern Zhou States. The entire story is usually played out in seven operatic excerpts: The Battle at Fancheng, At the Long Pavilion, At the Border Gate, Hiding in the Marshes, The Washerwoman, The Sword Hidden in the Belly of the Fish, and The Assassination of Liao. The full production was one of the most popular among the repertoires of Cheng Changgeng (1811-1880), Wang Guifen (1860-1906), Tan Xinpei (1847- 1917), and Yang Baosen (1909-1958). Yang was particularly worth mentioning because it was he who devoted a lot of time and effort to the restaging of the play in the 1930’s, finally making it the most popular production in the 1940’s. Even today, actors who perform Wu Zixu all come from the Yang stylistic school.
The story tells of Wu Zixu wants to flee to the State of Wu, but as a wanted man, he is afraid that he cannot go through the tight border control at Zhao Gate. Sir Donggao puts him up in his own residence for seven days. Under the enormous stress and anguish, Wu’s hair turns completely white, and is aging tremendously. So Donggao helps Wu to crash the border control. The next obstacle is the river. He finds an old fisherman who is willing to ferry him across. Wu goes ashore, but is too hungry to go on, so he begs a washerwoman for food. Wu arrives at the State of Wu and becomes a sworn brother of Zhuan Zhu. Prince Jiguang, who is the son and heir apparent to the Wu throne, but when the King dies, Jiliao usurps the throne. Jiguang plots to reinstate himself, and on learning that Wu Zixu is a good strategist and general, he takes Wu under his wing. Wu recommends Zhuan Zhu to Jiguang, who sends Zhuan to assassinate Jiliao with a dagger hidden in the belly of a fish. Wu Zixu is to put in an important position after Jiguang becomes the King.
Beating with a Gold Brick is also known as Seeking an Audience with the Emperor and The Twenty-eight Constellations Return to Heaven. The excerpt Seeking an Audience originally only featured Emperor Guangwu (a laosheng role) and his courtier, Yao Qi (a ‘painted face’ role): Yao ties his son up and brings him to the Emperor to beg for forgiveness as his son has killed the father of Lady Guo, the Emperor’s favourite. But the Emperor pardons them because Yao has helped him ascend the throne. This excerpt was given exemplary performances by Tan Xinpei and Yan Jupeng, and the three arias were so popular at the time that they were regarded as Yan’s best interpretations. But later, Li Shaochun (son of veteran actor Xiao Da Zi) expanded the story to become Beating with a Gold Brick as we know it today. In it, Yao’s entire family is wiped out following the confession, other court ministers who try to speak on Yao’s behalf are also beheaded, and Ma Wu, on seeing that the Emperor would not listen to reason, kills himself in front of the Emperor with a gold bullion. The wronged spirits of all the twenty-eight courtiers (the mortal incarnate of the twenty-eight constellations in heaven) rise from hell and demand justice from the Emperor, who is so shocked that he falls and dies.
The story takes place during the reign of Emperor Guangwu of Eastern Han Dynasty. Yao Gang, the son of Yao Qi, kills the father of Lady Guo. The Emperor orders to have him banished, much to the chagrin of Lady Guo. To take revenge, Lady Guo makes the Emperor drunk, and gives a false edict to have the faithful ministers cruelly killed. Ma Wu barges into the palace with a gold brick in a bid to advise the Emperor not to have the faithful wronged. Although the Emperor tries to revert the edict, the pardon comes too late. Ma crushes his own head with the gold brick. When the Emperor wakes from his drunken stupor, he is struck by remorse. He has Lady Guo executed, then goes to the Imperial Temple to pay his respects to the wronged loyal souls. But his deep regret gives him such pain that he collapses and dies.
The Stylistic Schools of Laosheng
It has become a standard practice today to accord actors of Peking Opera to various ‘stylistic schools’, birthed by some of the greatest names in Peking Opera in the early 20th Century. For stylistic schools for dan roles, we have those named after Mei Lanfang, Cheng Yanqiu, Zhang Junqiu, Shang Xiaoyun, Xun Huisheng etc.. But the fact is they were all trained under Wang Yaoqing, who was a disciple of Chen Delin (1862-1930). In other words, the dan schools all came from one source of training. The same analysis applies to laosheng role actors.
While today, there are stylistic schools attributed to past great names such as Tan Xinpei, Yu Shuyan, Yan Jupeng, Ma Lianliang, Tan Fuying, Li Shaochun, and Yang Baosen, the source of the provenances was Tan Xinpei. The rest were either trained directly by him or were students one or two generations removed. Each of those earlier actors had come to fame because they reinvented Tan’s style. Even with Yang Baosen, regarded as the influential teacher of laosheng actors since the 1950’s, his artistic lineage could be traced back to Tan through his coach Yang Baozhong, a disciple of Yu Shuyan, who was a disciple of Tan. So all in all, no matter what ‘school’ they claim themselves to be in, actors of various stylistic schools are but tributaries of the same source – Tan Xinpei.
22 April 2012 (Sun)
On Mei Lanfang in The Drunken Royal Concubine and The Shoe Story
The Drunken Royal Concubine, also known as The Hundred Flowers Pavilion, was originally a regional opera of the Qianlong period. It has lilting melodies and is performed with intricately stylized movements to externalize the feelings of the protagonist - Lady Yang Yuhuan, the favourite concubine of Emperor Ming of the Tang Dynasty. But the original version contained rather lewd references and expressions. It was through the artistic input of the Peking Opera legend, Mei Lanfang (1894-1961), that this was transformed into sophisticated theatre. Mei crafted the movements to reflect the internal turmoil of a heart torn between jealousy and love, and pared down the unnecessary details. The result is a Chinese opera classic and a famous piece in the repertoire of the Mei stylistic school.
It is an anecdote describing a lovers’ quarrel between Lady Yang and Emperor Ming of the Tang Dynasty. Lady Yang waits Emperor to show up in the Imperial Garden but in vain. With her heart gnawed by anger, Lady Yang drinks by herself until she falls into a stupor.
The Shoe Story is an intellectually and artistically created masterpiece by Mei Lanfang. The first libretto was by Qi Rushan, based on a chuanqi play of the Ming period written by Dong Yinghan. Later it was revised by Xu Jichuan, and was made into a film in 1984, with screening in Shanghai in 1985. It was an epoch-maker because it was the first motion picture in colour in China.
The story takes place during the war-stricken years of the Song Dynasty. The Tartar force, Jin, is making aggressions into Song land. Cheng Pengju and Han Yuniang are taken captive as slaves by General Zhang of the Jin army who forces them to marry. Yuniang encourages Cheng to escape back to Song land, but General Zhang learns of their plan. In a rage, he resells her. When the two part, Cheng drops a shoe in his hurried escape. Yuniang picks it up and hides it as a keepsake. Cheng becomes a soldier under General Zong Ze and aids in defeating the Jin invaders. Cheng misses Yuniang, so he sends Zhao Xun to bring the other shoe and go and find her. When Zhao comes along with Cheng’s shoe, Yuniang is reminded of all the sad things that have happened to her and falls ill. Cheng learns of this and hurries to find her, only to see her for the last time before she dies.