Beijing (Peking) Opera
The dramatic art form known as Beijing opera—or Peking opera—has been a staple of Chinese entertainment for more than two centuries. It was founded in 1790 when the “Four Great Anhui Troupes” went to Beijing to perform for the Imperial Court.
Some 40 years later, well-known opera troupes from Hubei joined the Anhui performers, melding their regional styles. Both the Hubei and Anhui opera troupes used two primary melodies adapted from the Shanxi musical tradition: “Xipi” and “Erhuang.” From this amalgam of local styles, the new Peking or Beijing opera developed. Today, Beijing Opera is considered China’s national art form.
Beijing Opera is famous for convoluted plots, vivid makeup, beautiful costumes and sets and the unique vocal style used by performers. Many of the 1,000 plots—perhaps not surprisingly—revolve around political and military strife, rather than romance. The basic stories are often hundreds or even thousands of years old involving historic and even supernatural beings.
hanxi Opera (Qinqiang)
Most forms of Chinese opera owe their singing and acting styles, some of their melodies, and their plot-lines to the musically fertile Shanxi province, with its thousand-year-old Qinqiang or Luantan folk melodies. This ancient form of art first appeared in the Yellow River Valley during the Qin Dynasty from B.C. 221 to 206 and was popularized at the Imperial Court at modern-day Xian during the Tang Era, which spanned from 618 to 907 A.D.
The repertoire and symbolic movements continued to develop in Shanxi Province throughout the Yuan Era (1271-1368) and the Ming Era (1368-1644). During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), Shanxi Opera was introduced to the court at Beijing. The Imperial audiences so enjoyed Shanxi singing that the form was incorporated into Beijing Opera, which is now a national artistic style.
At one time, the repertoire of Qinqiang included over 10,000 operas; today, only about 4,700 of them are remembered. The arias in Qinqiang Opera are divided into two types: huan yin, or “joyous tune,” and ku yin, or “sorrowful tune.” Plots in Shanxi Opera often deal with fighting oppression, wars against the northern barbarians, and issues of loyalty. Some Shanxi Opera productions include special effects such as fire-breathing or acrobatic twirling, in addition to the standard operatic acting and singing.
Shanghai (Huju) Opera
Shanghai opera (Huju) originated at about the same time as Beijing opera, around 200 years ago. However, the Shanghai version of opera is based on local folk-songs of the Huangpu River region rather than deriving from Anhui and Shanxi. Huju is performed in the Shanghainese dialect of Wu Chinese, which is not mutually intelligible with Mandarin. In other words, a person from Beijing would not understand the lyrics of a Huju piece.
Due to the relatively recent nature of the stories and songs that make up Huju, the costumes and makeup are comparatively simple and modern. Shanghai opera performers wear costumes that resemble the street clothing of ordinary people from the pre-communist era. Their makeup is not much more elaborate than that worn by western stage actors, in stark contrast to the heavy and significant grease-paint used in the other Chinese Opera forms.