High-flung, Sonorous Drama in Shaanxi Regional Opera
The Shaanxi province has long been home to a wide array of regional operas. Over 20 genres survive today, including Qinqiang, Wanwanqiang, Meihu, Guanzhongdaoqing Operas, each characterized by a cultural _avour uniquely its own. Amongst them, Qinqiang, Wanwanqiang and Guanzhongdaoqing Operas were included in the National List of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Wanwanqiang Opera (the “Bowls Tune”) is one of the more influential operatic forms in Shaanxi province, widely performed in the Dali, Weinan, Xi’an and Shanxi areas. It named after the small copper bowl used as the main accompanying percussion during performance.
Wanwanqiang Opera is known for its rich vocals. Romantic stories are written with literary finesse accompanied by tuneful music. It has a wide repertoire, affable dialogue and lyrics making the performances highly accessible and enjoyable. In its infant stage, Wanwangqiang Opera took the form of shadow play with no distinct role types except male and female. Characterization mainly relied upon the different vocal styles employed by the performers. Roles such as sheng (male), dan (female), jing (painted face), chou (clown) emerged only when the opera came to the stage in its later days. Modal voice and falsetto are used together during performance. The former serves to articulate a word, whereas the latter is used to stretch out the word for desired dramatic effect, giving rise to a cadence that sets itself apart.
Classic Repertoire The Golden Jade Hairpin
Cui Hu, a stately and suave scholar, takes a stroll in the country after his failure at the imperial examination. He becomes enamoured of the village lass Tao Xiaochun on their first encounter and the pair seal their affection for each other with a golden jade hairpin. The play, premiered in the 1950s by the Shaanxi Traditional Opera Research Institute, took the audience by storm and making it a magnum opus of Wanwanqiang Opera.
Qinqiang Opera is an age-old operatic form of the Shaanxi province which dates back to over 1,000 years ago. Hailed as the origin of the bangzi vocal style, it is widely heard and seen today in Northwest China, such as Gansu, Qinghai, Xinjiang and Ningxia.
Qinqiang Opera has a forthright, vigorous, high-flung style. Its singing is expansive, robust and strikingly resonant. Its performance is flamboyant yet simple, having an artistic touch all its own. There are two separate vocal styles, namely banlu and caiqiang – banlu sung with modal voice while caiqiang sung with falsetto in one octave higher, mostly employed to heighten emotions and the drama. There is also such a distinction as “jolly sound” and “bitter sound”. This hybrid mix of the rugged and the refined is one of the reasons why Qinqiang Opera has been widely adored.
Accompaniment for Qinqiang Opera is divided into civil (wen) scene and martial (wu) scene. The civil scene orchestra comprises the wind and string instruments, provides
accompaniment for the vocals, with banhu (clapper fiddle) as the lead instrumentguiding the entire orchestra. The martialscene consists mainly of percussion, serve tocomplement the actors’ dance-acting, topunctuate their moves and to accentuate emotionsand atmosphere. The bangzi (clapper) is a commonpercussive instrument, and at the helm of the wholeorchestra is bangu (clapper drum).
Also known as Chang’an Daoqing (literally Taoist affairs in Chang’an), Guanzhongdaoqing Opera is mainly based on Taoist tales. Religious values and beliefs are expounded through the libretto and chanting, and thus the name for the genre. It originated in the mid- to late-Tang period, most popular in Chang’an and its vicinity, then collectively known as the Guanzhong area. To begin with, multiple performers were seen sitting and singing together in a circle. By the Qing dynasty, due to the influence of Qinqiang Opera, artists began to perform for a seated audience in the marketplace. With the addition of shadow puppetry in its later years, the opera became more varied than ever.
The vocal structure of Guanzhong Daoqing is based on a variation of tempos. Among the more special instruments are yugu (fish drum), jianban (“simple clapper”), and sancaiban (three-piece clapper), as well as meidi (plum flute), sanxian (three-stringed lute), banhu (clapper fiddle). Bangqiang (off-stage chorus, also known as mayun or lapo) is often employed: the principal vocal delivers four lines, the last line reinforced by chorus in order to accentuate atmosphere and tension. This is a major characteristic of the opera.
Classic Repertoire Good Neighbours
On the New Year’s Eve, the poverty-stricken Li Xiaoxi visits his fiancée quietly to borrow food. He gets what he needs most from his sympathetic fiancée, but runs into his future in-laws before leaving. Eventually, the entire family shower him with provisions upon knowing his plight. This tightly-written play carries with it a wholesome message and received rave reviews upon its premiere in the 1950s. It has been performed up to this day as a signature piece of the genre.
Meihu is a major operatic genre in Shaanxi also known as Mihu (literally “confusion”),
Xuanzi (string), Quzi (tune) Opera, as well as qingqu (clear melodies) in the cultured circles. Meihu Opera first came into existence during the Qing dynasty, particularly popular in the Guanzhong regions of Shaanxi province. Its music came from folk songs and ballads. Its stories capture the everyday life of the common folks with pristine simplicity, which endears the opera to many.
Meihu Opera was a kind of sung theatre in its early days. Performers would sit along the streets to present life stories of the common people, usually in excerpts because it was costly to showcase full-length plays. Later, the all-singing theatre gradually morphed into a rudimentary form of drama. At first, it was mostly rendered on stage together with festive performances and yangge (“rice-sprout song”) folk dance. After years of development, Meihu Opera came to the stage as a performing art in its own right, complete with a stable of actors playing male and female roles.
Meihu Opera has a strong sense of reality. Costumes are simple, stage moves lifelike, lyrics populist and easy to understand, characters cheerful and playful. Folklore is often incorporated into the narrative, which is delivered beautifully with undulating, nuanced vocals. Given all these merits, Meihu Opera has been included in the second batch of National List of Intangible Cultural Heritage.