The World of Chinese - - Editor's Letter - BY HATTY LIU

Tra­di­tional Chi­nese tales and opera tech­niques get the con­tem­po­rary treat­ment at the 2016 Bei­jing Xiqu Opera Black Box Fes­ti­val. What do the works gain and lose in the trans­for­ma­tion, and how does a new gen­er­a­tion of opera di­rec­tors adapt an in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural relic for the small stage?

The irides­cent opera cos­tumes are opu­lent against the back­drop of black box the­ater, yet at times, at the lower reg­is­ters es­pe­cially, you lose the words sung on the cav­ernous stage. Such are the lessons of Star The­atre’s third an­nual Xiqu Opera Black Box Fes­ti­val in Bei­jing, held from Oc­to­ber to the last week of De­cem­ber, 2016; in the for­mi­da­ble un­der­tak­ing of mak­ing con­tem­po­rary adap­ta­tions to mil­len­nia-old Chi­nese art forms, you win some and lose some.

The fes­ti­val’s Chi­nese trans­la­tion for “black box” is, lit­er­ally, “small the­ater” (小剧场). It’s not ex­actly ac­cu­rate, since black box the­ater pri­mar­ily tends to be de­fined not by size as much as by an un­adorned, stream­lined look and flex­i­ble use of space, as the ar­range­ment of the seats are not fixed and can be changed as needed. In this year’s fes­ti­val, 17 out of the 19 of­fi­cial se­lec­tions played in Star The­atre’s two big­gest au­di­to­ri­ums, boast­ing more than plush 200 seats each, with an au­di­ence seated on one side as with the tra­di­tional prosce­nium stage.

In this case, ex­plains Hu Hanchi, a stu­dent di­rec­tor whose work was fea­tured in this year’s fes­ti­val, black box or “small the­ater” ought to be in­ter­preted in a rel­a­tive sense. “It’s not the space get­ting smaller, peo­ple get­ting fewer, but it refers to a close­ness of per­form­ers to the au­di­ence,” he says. “It’s about get­ting close enough to see what the cre­ator wants to ex­press.” At the Xiqu Opera Fes­ti­val, this comes of play­ing di­rectly on the au­di­to­rium floor, us­ing min­i­mal sets and tech­ni­cal dis­trac­tions, and by creatively reimag­in­ing of the bound­aries of the stage—in­clud­ing emo­tional bound­aries.

Billed as an “ex­per­i­men­tal Kunqu opera” by the fes­ti­val or­ga­niz­ers, Hu’s work, Three In­car­na­tions, is based on a story of the same name from Pu Songling’s Strange Tales from a Chi­nese Stu­dio. In this tale, a man is able to re­call three of his past lives—as a district mag­is­trate, a dog, and an of­fi­cial over­see­ing the civil ser­vice ex­am­i­na­tion—and comes into con­flict with the same in­di­vid­ual in each life. In terms of its themes and presentation, Hu’s piece holds per­haps the mid­dle ground among the fes­ti­val’s se­lected works. The of­fi­cial se­lec­tion ran the gamut of an­cient the­atri­cal and op­er­atic works gar­nished with a few lines of mod­ern ver­nac­u­lar for comic ef­fect to full post­mod­ern pro­duc­tions, where tra­di­tional op­er­atic themes are just some of the many cul­tural ref­er­ences made along­side hip hop, in­ter­net slang, and belly dance.

For Hu, Three In­car­na­tions was ideal meat for black box the­ater, be­ing a work with an introspective theme and ex­tremely limited cast. As a mat­ter of fact, he is the only per­former in his pro­duc­tion, as well as the di­rec­tor and one of two co-writers. He is also one of only two works at this year’s fes­ti­val (along with a chil­dren’s opera) that played in a small au­di­to­rium with a “fan-shaped” stage, which has the au­di­ence seated on three sides and al­lows greater free­dom with the per­form­ers’ use of di­rec­tion and space. By chang­ing the orig­i­nal story’s three past lives to horse, dog, and snake, Hu al­lows him­self to make more in­no­va­tive use of body move­ments—honed by years of pun­ish­ingly com­pre­hen­sive stud­ies at the Na­tional Acad­emy of Chi­nese The­atre Arts—as well as reimag­ine the func­tion of stock opera roles sheng, dan, and chou as be­ing anal­o­gous of the three lives in the story, sug­gest­ing a co­ex­is­tence of dif­fer­ent moral qual­i­ties in one per­son when all played by the sin­gle ac­tor.

The rest of the Xiqu Opera Fes­ti­val’s pro­gram­ming is a mix of adap­ta­tions to tra­di­tional works in the ma­jor op­er­atic gen­res of Pek­ing, Kunqu, Yue (Shaox­ing), Gan, and Yue (Can­ton) gen­res, as well as more imag­i­na­tive oeu­vres such as a Chi­nese op­erain­fused take on Shake­speare’s As You

Like It and an ache lhamo pro­duc­tion, some­times called “Ti­betan mu­si­cal the­ater.” There is also the clos­ing per­for­mance, Four West­ward Dreams, an orig­i­nal pro­duc­tion (very) loosely in­spired by the works of 16th cen­tury play­wright Tang Xianzu (汤显祖)— all of his works.

In this last pro­duc­tion, the fes­ti­val some­what fal­ters. Opera in­flu­ences are wo­ven with fa­nat­i­cal care into the ac­tors’ ev­ery move­ment and sus­tained note of their voice; the ac­tion pri­mar­ily con­sists of pop cul­ture-in­fused di­a­logue and dance num­bers that are meant to take you out of the ac­tion and mir­ror the jar­ring, ab­surd changes of scenery and mood that ev­ery­one ex­pe­ri­ences while dream­ing. They suc­ceed all too well, eat­ing up any at­ten­tion the au­di­ence might give to the ac­tors’ tech­ni­cal fi­nesse and the play’s oc­ca­sion­ally breath­tak­ing vis­ual tableaux, which are the typ­i­cal take­aways of a Chi­nese opera per­for­mance and shown off to spe­cial ad­van­tage by the min­i­mal­ist black box set­ting. As two stu­dents in the au­di­ence com­plained af­ter­wards, “it was just a reg­u­lar play”—and not one that had the stealth­i­est ref­er­ences or that ad­vanced any sort of bit­ing cri­tique with its pas­tiche and par­ody.

The road to mod­ern­iz­ing Chi­nese opera, to be fair, was never go­ing to be easy. Through­out mod­ern Chi­nese his­tory, each gen­er­a­tion has tried to rein­ter­pret opera ac­cord­ing to what were deemed to be the fun­da­men­tal po­lit­i­cal and moral val­ues of their era. In the Re­pub­lic of China pe­riod, the art de­vel­oped cod­i­fied tech­niques, train­ing schools, and clas­sic reper­toire in re­flec­tion of a so­ci­ety-wide push to­ward more “sci­en­tific” ways of prac­tic­ing cul­ture; purists then protested, cit­ing how the old (and fa­mously bru­tal) train­ing sys­tem pro­duced elite per­form­ers un­matched in level of skill and ded­i­ca­tion to the craft. The in­fa­mous “Eight Model Op­eras” sanc­tioned dur­ing the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion were later re­pu­di­ated for monotony and overt po­lit­i­cal mes­sages pushed at the ex­pense of artis­tic merit.

Black box, on the other hand, is a some­what re­cent phe­nom­e­non, ap­pear­ing in China for the first time in 1995. It is pri­mar­ily as­so­ci­ated with youth di­rec­tors and au­di­ences and cul­ti­vates a de­cid­edly niche iden­tity. It’s still much eas­ier to find list­ing for per­for­mances on so­cial me­dia than ma­jor mag­a­zines and city en­ter­tain­ment guides, while the venues tend to clus­ter around art districts and, in­creas­ingly, com­mer­cial ar­eas cater­ing to “artis­tic youths.” Ac­cord­ing to Hu, the black box con­cept is only be­gin­ning to take hold in the world of opera, but, like all con­tem­po­rary move­ments, it’s noth­ing more than an in­vi­ta­tion to ex­press the ideas of con­tem­po­rary so­ci­ety.

“As a post-90s gen­er­a­tion cre­ator I want to honor the an­cient her­itage of opera, but I also per­son­ally feel like opera can be ‘cool,’ so my pro­duc­tion com­pany and I like to ex­press our work that way,” he says. “On the other hand, tra­di­tional opera for­mat is too im­mensely rich and com­plex, so our chal­lenge was to adapt it fit the un­usual themes of the story in or­der to ex­press our icon­o­clas­tic per­son­al­ity.”

“The word ‘ex­per­i­men­tal,’ is not some­thing I came up with, but a la­bel the fes­ti­val gave my show—but sim­i­larly, I feel like that’s all rel­a­tive, that any cre­ation is an ex­per­i­ment and any opera in a ‘small the­ater’ is al­ready ex­per­i­men­tal,” Hu says.

The opera Twobellesinlove rein­ter­prets Qing drama­tist Li Yu's The­frag­ment­com­pan­ion as a love story be­tween the two fe­male leads

Some of the works per­formed at the fes­ti­val are up­dated with hu­mor­ous in­ter­ludes and asides in mod­ern spo­ken Chi­nese

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