writers on dancing


Sublime Challenge

"Female Generals of the Yang Family"
China National Peking Opera Company
Eisenhower Theater
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Washington, DC, USA
October 13, 2005

by George Jackson
copyright ©2005 by
George Jackson

Immersion in Peking Opera is a challenge to the ears, eyes and the moral sense of contemporary Westerners. At least at first. With the singing sounding so off key that it sets nerves on edge, and with stage pictures so saturated by colors, textures and detailed contours that they incite visual overload, it isn't just the sensual content to which one must adjust. The motivations and causes that drive the drama make one check ones own values to make sure they are still intact. So gripping, though, was "Female Generals" on opening night that after a few minutes into the action all sense of discomfort disappeared. Instead one sat in awe, often at the edge of one's seat, as a sublime form of theater unfolded.

This opera's dramatic dilemma is urgent: barbarians are at the gates and have killed the country's military leaders. Negotiate, try to appease them or resist? The Emperor, graciously aloof, and his contentious advisors, having lost the last of their leading generals, make a condolence call on his family and in the course of it declare their intention to lay down arms. The family, mostly women because of war's consequences and ruled by an 100 year old matriarch, protests. If there are too few men left to command the imperial forces, this noble military family's women will become the new generals. The Emperor accepts the astonishing offer. These events, the major ones in the first half of "Female Generals", have poignant subplots. One of them concerns etiquette—practicing a civilized code of behavior that may involve deception but which aims to preserve the individual's autonomy and dignity within the social matrix. News of the death of the family's last great warrior reaches it on a day of celebration, but to blurt it out amid the beginning festivities would be wrong. The male bearers of the sad tidings prepare the killed man's wife and mother for what they have to say by approaching them dressed in robes of mourning. Only on being questioned as to why they are so dressed on a feast day, do they tell what has happened. An even more elaborate etiquette is followed to allow the grandmother or Matriarch to learn of the death gradually, through her own questions concerning the odd behavior of those in the know. Strange as such circumlocution appears today, it is made to seem most humane.

Movement—even outright moments of dance, as well as telling poses and gestures that comment—is woven into the action. Hand positions, with the fingers highly articulated, I found especially fetching. Yet the core of the story is conveyed through the voice and so the designation of this species of theater as "opera" seems apt. Once the ear has adjusted to Peking pitch, one marvels at the singing's ability to impart emotions, display virtuosity, and portray personality. There are character categories similar to those in older forms of Western theater, although age is a more crucial criterion in Peking Opera with the young man type strictly segregated from the old and middle aged. Old women, too, are distinct entities. However, the total range of characters is Shakespearean. One of the two official stars of "Female Generals" is Deng Min as Mu Guiying, wife of the killed warrior and grand-daughter-in-law of the Matriarch. She suffers nobly at first, trying to hide her sorrow from the Matriarch. She is eloquent in demanding the right to resist the enemy. She is all agility fighting the foe. As mime, singer and dancer, Deng Min is a phenomenon. Her vocal dexterity was put most to the test in a coloratura passage addressed to an old man who is hard of hearing. He asked her to repeat it but louder, and she did—much louder and without a wobble. The other performer given star billing, Huang Bingqiang, adroitly underplays one of the Emperor's ministers with a bluntness that scolds like that of America's Vice-President. Not billed as prominently yet deserving star status is Bi Yang as the Matriarch. She wields power, doing so with the satin touch of one who must have been a great beauty. How she relishes being escorted by her great-grandson. He is still a child, but is ready to ride into battle on his late father's white steed. This lad's bravado could easily seem inflated if the character were not presented and acted (in travesty by Yang Meiqin) so freshly that the part becomes totally credible. Even minor characters, servants and uncles and enemies, have personality.

Acrobatics take precedence in the second half of "Female Generals", especially in the epilogue which depicts combat with the enemy. Unlike the opera's music and designs, these maneuvers require no adjustment from a Western audience. The Emperor's forces fight elegantly, in keeping with their noble characters whereas the barbarian enemies are rough and tumble. The instrumental musicians for Peking Opera—percussionists, string and wind players —sit on the side of the stage. Their sound, compared to the vocal, isn't as alien at first from the perspective of Western classical music, but one ought to guard against hearing it as exotic and just decorative. My own adjustment to Peking Opera occurred during a visit to Beijing in the 1990s, where it was constantly available not only live but also on television. Adjustment didn't take long (I've never gotten used to most Western pop singing, which sounds like whining in my ears). Encountering the Peking Opera after a gap of time, I again need a few minutes to acclimate. Were it available all the time, like in Beijing, I think I'd become an addict.

Credits: "Female Generals of the Yang Family" premiered in Beijing in 1959 based on the 200 year old Peking Opera tradition. The current production was adapted by Fan Junhong and Lu Ruiming, stage directed by Zheng Yiqiu and musically arranged by Zhang Fu. Set designs are credited to Zhao Jinsheng. The uncredited costuming, stunning in aggregate, contained a cosmos of subtle detail. The supertitles, unusually good, were kept lean and helped immensely in conveying the story and suggesting its sense.

Volume 3, No. 38
October 17, 2005
copyright ©2005 George Jackson



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last updated on October 17, 2005