Chinese Opera Glimpsed and Heard Briefly

A visit to China several years ago brought about a most welcome introduction to the world of Chinese opera and the desire to hear more.

What a stroke of luck to be part of an orchestra that found itself invited to go on tour in China a few seasons back. Aside from all the fascinating sights and sounds waiting to be savored on such a trip in any circumstances, there can be no doubt that undertaking it as a kind of minstrel, in the midst of a like-minded troupe, bestows an extra sheen and depth on the experience. Among the selections on our program was the Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto, an adventurous bridge between two worlds (for us, at any rate). Our perceptive, thoughtful guide arranged for us — on a rare night off the stage— to attend a specially-arranged evening of Chinese opera (an example can be had from, more specifically the form known as Kunqu or Kun opera. That it was that particular variant was perhaps an extra layer of good fortune, as it is one of the oldest types still in existence and has had a far-reaching influence on many other forms of Chinese theatre, making it all the more fascinating.

Chinese opera musically exotic to Western ears at first yet familiar emotionally and dramatically

Life is Change, Midnight Blue,
Chinese and English Ceramic Tiles

by missprinteditions
Not all my colleagues reacted in the same fashion, I came to discover later, but for me it was a discovery of something strange only at the very outset and then somehow known; I felt filled with vibrations of the most sympathetic sort. This quality of universality — that is all I can think to call it — is fairly impossible to explain, with explanations and analyses failing to capture its essence, but is magically instantly recognizable in great art, ready to be recognized and console (as well as inspiring) humanity for having to endure the human condition. The revelation of Chinese opera was a gift that has continued to reverberate in my life.

Like a Chinese puzzle, a Chinese opera within an opera

As a farewell to this subject for now, I would like to nod fondly at British composer Judith Weir, who gave us — among other riches — A Night at the Chinese Opera. An opera containing a Chinese opera: surely the best of all possible worlds.


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