Fine Blend of Strength and Delicateness - Wu Opera

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Wu Opera

Wu Opera is the second major theatrical genre in Zhejiang. It is widely performed in the Jinhua area of the Zhejiang Province. Wu Opera was named after Jinhua’s former name, Wuzhou. Hence, it can be named as Jinhua Opera. Wu Opera is a genre with a wide variety of vocal styles which contains gaoqiang, kunqiang, luantan, Anhui Opera, tanhuang and shidiao.

Artistic Features
Wu Opera originated in rural origin. Most of the performers were farmers and it was mainly performed on village greens and in ancestral halls. The overall performance style of Wu Opera is rugged and exaggerated. It also emphasizes the stage effects, requiring the performers to have high level of singing and acting. Its stories cater to popular taste, with an emphasis on everyday life but interesting twists and turns. A combination of crisp and sonorous music, strong emotive expression, and contrasting clothing, making Wu Opera can be included in the National List of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Fine Blend of Strength and Delicateness

Wu Opera is especially effective in conveying an imposing atmosphere and strong emotions through dance and martial sequences. The full-length Wu Opera production Mu Guiying, for example, features an exciting array of jumps and somersaults, highly skilled martial techniques, as well as fluid and outstanding singing – all of which combine to create the distinguished presence of a grand martial production of Wu Opera. In addition to magnificent martial sequences, Wu Opera performance also aims at crossing over the civil and martial styles – integration instead of opposition is accomplished in the civil and martial elements. In Mu Guiying, the fight between the titled heroine Mu Guiying and her beau Yang Zongbao develops from serious swordplay to the emergence of romantic feelings; slower martial moves are gradually employed to express the emotional changes in the development. This is a classic example that highlights the versatility of Wu Opera as an effective art form to showcase both boldness and tenderness, and the fine blend of strength and delicateness.

The Six Vocal Styles of Wu Opera

Wu Opera features six different vocal styles, each has its own specialty repertoires. Amongst these vocal styles, gaoqiang, kunqiang, luantan were initially performed by individual troupes, which later developed into mixed-repertory troupes, such as “three-mixed-repertory troupes” , or “luantan troupes”, etc. Although the six vocal styles of Wu Opera are used for different tunes, all of them employ the combined use of the modal voice and falsetto: extended notes in a singing line are sung with falsetto, while other notes are sung with the modal voice. The singing style is also known as “male and female voice”.

In Wu Opera, gaoqiang is subdivided into three types, Xi'an, Xiwu and Houyang. In Xi'an style, drums are used to keep the beat. The pitch of Xi'an style is slightly lower than the other two and makes it smooth and elegant. The Xiwu style has a more fluid delivery, while the Houyang style which accompanying orchestral music is even freer in delivery than the previous two. Above three styles have been using the skill of bangqiang (i.e. when one sings, the other join in) while the tone is high-flung and sonorous.

Kunqiang in the Wu Opera is found in Jinhua, hence its other name Jinkun (''Jinhua's kunqu''). The pitch is relative high because this type of opera was formerly performed by itinerant troupes that went to the rural areas. Since farmers are the main audience, the performance is easy to understand and less restricted on the vocal pattern. On the other hand, it emphasizes on the stylized movement, fighting routines and martial art features.

Most troupes that specialise in luantan of Wu Opera come from Pujiang county of Jinhua. As a result, luantan of Wu Opera is also known as Pujiang luantan. Luantan of Wu Opera refers to repertoires sung in four singingstyles, namely sanwuqi (three-five-seven), luhuadiao, erfan, and bozi. Of these, sanwuqi and luhuadiao areboth primarily accompanied by the bamboo flute; the melodies are ornamental and graceful. There are differentbeat patterns in erfan, which could express the emotions of excitement, solemnity and high spirits. Similarly,there are different beat patterns in bozi, which are usually linked with luhuadiao.

Anhui Opera
Anhui Opera, a vocal style of Wu Opera, originated from Anhui, but it has been lost in its provenance. The relatively complete look and feel of the lost art form, however, has been preserved in Wu Opera. Anhui Opera is mainly performed with bozi and luhuadiao; xipi and erhuang are the main singing styles. The repertories are mostly based on historical chuanqi, which are played with a more straightforward and rustic touch.

Tanhuang is originated from Suzhou and was originally seated singing. After the development of Wu Opera artists, it became one of the six vocal styles. Most of the repertoires came from kunqu while the stories are related to the everyday life of the people. Its euphemism singing style and rapid gongs and drums form a strong contrast.

Shidiao refers to short folk plays, it became popular since the dynasties of Ming and Qing. Some derived from popular tunes of the two dynasties, and some others came from local folk tunes. Shidiao has evolved from the popular folk melodies and songs and dance of the late Ming dynasty. The vocal style is mostly used for the singing of short plays about life in a rural village. The singing is lively and the lyrics are more free-style.

Masterly Skills and Stunt Acts

In Wu Opera performances, the interestingly varied skill of swift change of face is an integral and enriching element. Face-changing in Wu Opera is performed with the techniques including complexion change, smearing, and powder-blowing. Face-changing is the quintessence of Wu Opera – the actor must be flawless in completing the lightning-flash change, which calls for meticulous training and committed practices.

Wu Opera comprise a kaleidoscopic array of stunts. The plot is often revealed through masterly skills and stunt acts during the performance. In the past, there were no water-sleeves in the costumes of Wu Opera. As a result, hand movements of actors were very prominent. Gestures were performed to a level of details that show the minute trembling of the fingers as the actor played the action of opening a door. Therefore, all the roles in Wu Opera attach high importance to the training of wrist and finger movements.

The Legend of the White Snake
A variety of stylised movements and stunts are performed in the Wu Opera play The Legend of the White Snake. The “snake slither” of Bai Suzhen and Xiaoqing remind the audience of snakes moving across a water surface, which is filled with mythical colours when combined with elegant dance movements. The somersaults and falling stunts of Xu Xian, namely the “eighteen falls” and “swift leap-and-kneel” are on par of martial plays in terms of technicality. The unsophisticated and exaggerating styles of Wu Opera are put into full play. In The Broken Bridge, Xu Xian has a particularly impressive stunt of shoe-kicking and wearing – in the sitting position, Xu Xian kicks a shoe over his head to vividly portray his frightened state of mind as he flees. The act does not only demonstrate his highly-trained technique, but also becomes an integral part of the plot that makes the story even more fascinating.