From Friday December 17 to Sunday December 19 the New York Chinese Opera Society presented their fourth annual Winter Cultural Exchange Festival, performing a number of Peking-style operas, including the world premiere of the original opera, “The Story of Ruth” at the Schimmel Center for the Arts at Pace University.
For those of you are unaware of Peking Opera, it is a form of theatre that goes back at least 300 years. The types of characters include “young men,” “old men,” “young women,” “old women,” and “clowns”. The “young men” and “young women” parts are sung in a very high pitch while the older characters sing in lower voices. “Clowns” are there for comic relief. Singers are accompanied by a number of mostly stringed and plucked instruments. Between arias there are gong and drum interludes. Many of the operatic stories come from traditional Chinese sources, but “The Story of Ruth” is taken from the Bible. The scenery is sparse but the costumes can often be quite elaborate, especially for the main characters. One thing that should be remembered when watching Chinese opera: it is quite stylized and is not supposed to be realistic. Dolls often stand in for babies and ropes for horses. Much of the action is also pantomimed. Peking opera is a unique form of art that is eye-opening for Western audiences.
On Friday night, NYCOS performed three short operas: “House of Hu,” “The Narrow Escape,” and “Farewell My Concubine.” I was able to watch the first two operas. “House of Hu” is a martial arts showcase about a female warrior, Hu San Niang, played by the fierce Yingchun Li, who is determined to defeat a band of outlaws that are attacking the neighboring Zhu Family Estate (Her father’s estate is the House of Hu). At the beginning of the opera we are sympathetic to the outlaws, as Hu San spends a great deal of time telling the audience about great she is and how the outlaws have no chance against her. At first she rallies against the outlaws, and captures their commander, Wang Ying. However, her hubris soon catches up with her and she is defeated by the outlaws’ second-in-command, Lin Chong. In the end she is forced to marry Wang Ying and joins the outlaws in their fight against the evil emperor. This piece truly showed the showmanship of NYCOS, with the acrobatics of the performers, and the dazzling array of costumes.
A fight scene from "House of Hu"
“The Narrow Escape” is a much more somber piece. After his family has been murdered by the King of Chu, General Wu Yuan escapes capture but is stuck in hiding in the Zhao Guan Pass. He is given shelter by the hermit Sir Tong. Wei He, who plays the General, truly makes the audience understand his plight, with a number of tear-jerking arias about how he cannot escape to avenge the death of his parents. However, in a bit of irony, his anxiety causes his beard to turn white. With the help of Tong’s friend Huang Pu Na, he is able to sneak through the pass with his new disguise.
On Saturday afternoon, the opera performance was preceded by an award ceremony for the winners of the 1st Annual New York Chinese Opera Essay Contest. Open to Pace University students writing about Chinese culture and History, first prize went to Ben Oliveri, a senior at Dyson, for his essay, “Educational Reform in Hong Kong, China: Social and Political Implications.” Second prize went to Amanda Wong, a freshman at Lubin, for her personal essay about her family’s odyssey during WW II, and how the family emigrated from China to Nicaragua and finally to the United States. The contest was co-sponsored by the Confucius Institute and the Center for East Asian Studies at Pace.
The opera on Saturday was the “Story of Ruth,” an operatic take on the Biblical story. The “Story of Ruth” has been previewed to audiences a number of times, but this was its official world premiere. NYCOS put in a great deal of hard work to bring this work to fruition, with original music, arias, costumes, scenery, makeup, etc. The opera opens with the peasants of Bethlehem dancing, singing, and doing acrobatics in celebration of the barley harvest. The next scene opens on Naomi bemoaning her fate as a lonely widow, as she returns from Moab to her hometown of Bethlehem. Not only her husband has died, but her two sons have died as well. She is truly a portrait of pity. However, even though she told her daughter-in-law Ruth not to come with her, suddenly Ruth appears and refuses to leave her mother-in-law’s side. This was highly unusual in Biblical times, as a widow was to go to her native land when her husband died – Ruth in Moab and Naomi in Bethlehem. A marvelous display of pantomime by the two actresses, Charlene Tong (Ruth) and Qiuwei Zhang (Naomi), brings the two over mountains and stream until they get to Bethlehem. Ruth and Naomi arrive at the height of the barley harvest, and since they have no money, Ruth has to glean the barley left in the fields. Boaz, a close relative of Ruth, owns the fields and is good to her, allowing her share and more of the leftover barley. This is quite important as one of the biblical commandments is to leave some of your crop over for gleaners as a form of charity. Eventually Boaz and Ruth fall in love and ask the elders of Bethlehem for their blessing. However, a male relative who is even more closely related to Ruth also wants to marry her. Played with a mischievous lechery by Kuixi Han in a clown role, Tusi is a bit of a playboy, running after women and doing little work. He attacks Ruth when he first meets her and she has to be saved by Boaz. Ruth does not want to marry Tusi at all, even though she is obliged to since he is her closest male relative. Who she will marry is up to the village elders. Because of Boaz’s charitable and chivalrous behavior, and because Tusi refuses to take care of Naomi as well if he marries, even though Tusi should receive her hand in marriage, he is passed over by the village elders as not being worthy to marry her. “The Story of Ruth” is truly an instance of how rights are built on responsibility, a message that still reverberates in the modern world.
Boaz admonishing Tusi after he attacks Ruth
The festival closed on Sunday afternoon with a performance of the opera “The Fourth Son’s Filial Visit.” Before the action begins we learn that fifteen years ago Yang Yanhui (Silang), along with his father and six brothers, on behalf of the Song Dynasty, carried out a military campaign to expel the Liao. The Song Dynasty army lost, and Silang was captured, not knowing what happened to the rest of his family. He eventually changes his identity and becomes a prince of Liao, married to Princess Iron Mirror. When the action begins his brother, General Yang Yanzho, is leading an army against the Liao, with his mother in charge of provisions. Silang knows that they are right around the corner but doesn’t want to reveal his true identity and knows it is dangerous to visit them. The princess sees that Silang is quite upset but doesn’t understand why. She keeps on guessing until she finally gets it right. It is quite humorous when Silang makes the observation that the princess is a good mind reader. In a disguise Silang crosses the border with a golden permit stolen by the Princess from the Empress. It is a tearful reunion when Silang greets his brother and mother, but his mother at least tells him that she can rest easy now, knowing that he is still alive. Upon return Silang is captured by Uncle Di and Uncle Da, the two clowns, who recognize him in his disguise. He has to reveal his true identity to the Liao Empress, and she decides to execute him as a spy. The Empress is shown as quite stubborn, and he is only saved when the princess makes her baby son cry, and her compassion for her grandson makes her realize her mistake.
The "Fourth Son" (center) visiting his mother and older brother
The performances of the 2010 Winter Cultural Exchange Festival were truly memorable and we hope NYCOS continues to stage their operas at Pace in the coming years.
Written by Ansel Lurio. Photos by Yan Zhang. Ansel Lurio is Program Coordinator at the Confucius Institute. Yan Zhang does translation work for the Institute.