The Peking Opera at the Metropolitan Opera House is everything except what one would normally call opera -- the repertory selected for the company's tour across the United States calls for acting, chanting, declamation, mime, and acrobatics of a spectacular nature.
The origins of Peking Opera go back several centuries and have been set as a codified form of theater for over one hundred years. Yet in this country it's probably only the followers of avant-garde theater who will recognize how the term opera is being used by the Chinese. Using as guides the mixed-media events of the 1960s and the multi-expression form of Robert Wilson and Meredith Monk in the 1970s, one can readily understand the word opera as a pragmatic catchall phrase meaning theatrical work.
If the word opera still throws some for a loop, the crux of the Peking Opera is its amazing familiarity. Amazing because, after all, everything about the company is foreign and exotic. Not only is the dialogue in chinese, but the intonations are crooned in a slight whine and change rapidly in timbre.
The suitor in the "Jade Bracelet," for example, alternates between a falsetto voice and a mainly basso within the same phrase. The actor's movements are not only stylized, but conform to oddly brusque rhythms, a kind of syncopation in which gestures quicken and suddenly halt, then spur ahead again.
Although one might be accustomed to costumes of rich tapestries and eleborate makeup, the complexity and variety of shapes in Chinese costumes are something else. It's often difficult to perceive the human body under the layer of fabrics. Since many of the characters are gods, demons, and animals, this transfiguration of the body makes narrative sense. But it surely plays delightful havoc with the eye.
Why, then, does Peking Opera seem so familiar? Basically, because the stories it tells are based on stock situations and characters. One of the major pieces in the repertory, "The Monkey King Fights the Eighteen Demons," uses the monkey king as a symbol of the free spirit. The story itself relates how this creature offends a rich emperor and is brought before the Lord Buddha, whose court of demons tries to capture him. Naturally, he outwits them.
The subtext, however, posits agility and wit against all that's heavy-handed, dull, and ordinary. The demons rush againt him with brute force. The monkey king parries with a flick of the wrist. The emperor an Buddha are pompous, moving with cumbersome deliberation. The monkey king darts an laughs, and with his sly winks at the audiene implicates us in his mocking ridicule.
The demons embody the seven deadly sins, give or take a few. My favorite demon was the one who goes through a long series of warm-up before taking on the monkey king. All prepared, with his sword magnificently polished, he meets his downfall when the monkey king squashes his toe.
We know this guy, of course. He's the best-equipped jogger on the block, the most fanatic carbohydrate loader on marathon eve. Comes the day of the race, he forgets his shoelaces.
The monkey king's prototype is more complex, pointing toward one of the most curious aspects of Peking Opera. Its level of hunor is both high and low. The monkey king is both Hamlet and Pinky Lee, an while the implications of the plot tange around the Hamlet level, the action per se is pretty much Pinky Lee.
Peking Opera is a national populist theater, but is is still surprising to realize how important slapstick is. In some sense, a piece like this raises the same question as American television: Is the average age of the Chinese six years old? On the other hand, the monkey-king saga hints at a much kinder similarity between China and United States. At its deepest level, this opera explores the conflict between an anarchist spirit and bureaucracy, and it votes hands down for the anarchist. Americans cast the same vote when they read Mark Twain.
If one can see a bit of Huck Finn in the monkey king, one can see a lot of "Oklahoma!" in the "Jade Bracelet." This opera concerns an ingenue who is courted by a suitor on the sly. The matchmaker, having spied upon their meeting , pretends to scold her ward while all the while encouraging their match. With her gruff exterior and golden heart, the matchmaker is your perfect Aunt Eller. And the ingenue and suitor, all aflutter and yet very staunch in their role-playing, are blueberry pie lovers.
The sentimentality of the "Jade Bracelet" is as prominent as the burlesque in the monkey-king tale. The only element in Peking Opera that completely transcends bourgeois taste is the acrobatics, which play an important part in the monkey-king epic and are the very substance of "Yen Tang Mountain," a long and thrilling battle.
We've all seen somersaults, but you haven't seen elegant ones till you've seen the Chinese. The force and clarity and speed of their manuevers are something to behold. In its pristine execution, and in the almost austere conception of its choreography, the acrobatics become the Peking Opera's most eloquent form of expression.
What the somersaults express is joyful mastery of one's body. They imply long training periods, cultivation, and the continuity of tradition. So, of course, do the other aspects of Peking Opera, if to a less and less obvious extent. One is told that Peking Opera was banned during the Cultural Revolution from the mid 1960s to 1977, and that many of starring performers, who have practiced their art since they were children the 1930s and '40s, were required to work on farms during the height of the revolution.
Yet the experience of Peking Opera somehow belies that fact. Just as the operas themselves suggests, for better and for worse, a greater variety of attitudes than one is led to believe exist in China, so does the ongoingnes of the whole enterprise suggest that perhaps the Culturl Revolution was not as rigid as one is led to believe.
Be that as it may, Americans across the land can have a concrete taste of Chinese culture within the next months. After the Met, the Peking Opera travels to Philadelphia. In September appears at the Kennedy Center in Washington, and then in California. In October it travels back East, through Louisville, Ky.; Minneapolis; and Chicago, ending up in Boston Oct. 21 through Nov. 2.