A funny thing happened on the way to the opera

(Patrick Whiteley)
Updated: 2008-05-12 08:56

I'm starting to really dig Peking Opera. I think this means I've lived in China too long. If any expat has actually been to a Peking Opera or heard it on television, they will know what I mean. Peking Opera is very, very, very strange.

Many of us have read the feature articles, and seen the colorful opera faces in magazines. We know Peking Opera is a national treasure, but when I first heard those cat meowing sounds, I wanted to run for the hills. Was somebody getting strangled?

The colorful costumes and brightly painted faces were magnetic; those drooping beards were wacky; the martial arts moves were entertaining and the freaky exaggerated eye rolls were compelling.

But when the singing started, it sounded like someone was dragging finger nails down a blackboard.

A Peking opera singer's voice rockets up so high it starts cracking and then screeches down to blur. This goes on for 3 to 4 hours. In fact, a recent Kunqu Opera performance in Beijing lasted four days.

I went to a Peking Opera show and fled after an hour. The show started at 7:30 pm and the sounds of cats being strangled carried on almost till midnight. I was frustratingly bored and simply didn't get it. It jarred my musical sensibilities and was too foreign. To me, the singing made no musical sense.

Come to think of it, I reckon all opera is irrational. Most opera buffs dress up in their best gear, sit in a theater for 3 hours and listen to actors, dressed in ridiculous costumes, sing songs in a language most don't understand.

I often hate and quickly dismiss things I don't understand. Maybe hate is too strong of a word, but after consulting the dictionary, the four-letter word aptly described my Peking Opera relationship. The Webster's says hate means "to dislike intensely or passionately".

But something happened. Over the past year I've been surfing through the Chinese TV channels and sometimes ended up on CCTV11, the dedicated opera station. I still didn't give it too much focus, but I didn't change channels and the opera sounds filled my home as I potted about. Slowly, the jarring reaction subsided and I now get it.

Peking Opera is very beautiful.

The sound hums with this carefree, melancholy vibe. It is removed from the rationale and reality of daily life. As I lost myself in the wavering voices, the extreme pitches, and the wailing siren of distress and joy, I began to appreciate its beauty.

It was like looking at an powerful abstract art. I feel something, but I don't know why. The art critic will tell me about composition, form and color. I just know I like the sound, even though I don't understand a word they are saying.

Just like Western opera, Peking Opera's irrational nature is its appeal. Sometimes I seek relief from my earthly concerns, and reach for a glimpse of heaven.

(China Daily 05/12/2008 page8)


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