Legending vs Livelihooding: The Two faces of Opera

Can the showtime, entertainment song-and-dance arts of the beggar or peddler-performer inform (transform) those of the verbally serious stage (be it tragic or ideological?)

This is no small issue for 20th century China: it arises in the 1930s, most easily tracked down in film, but also in the fury of the namecalling sloshed back and forth between the star-making song and dance companies, on the one hand, and a handful of highly political and leftist film studios, who poached talents from the former (as “minor leagues”) with no very exact idea of how to fit them in, though in they must be fitted – the star-struck box office was too lucrative, too vulnerable to Hollywood musicals (an exemplary field for working this issue out) to be simply ignored.

But this mĂ©salliance was not just a awkwardly negotiated hurdle in the history of China’s film: it is even more interruptive in the way it slammed the door shut on what many regarded a necessary cohort in the great contest for cultural prestige and parity: Western stye opera (geju). The attempted founding of a native version of Western opera engendered an ideal (never realized) of a seamless fusion of song and vernacular stage-drama (huaju jia ge). But “huaju” (one might best translate it as educated-class engineered vernacular drama – Ibsen being the prime model) simply did not engage with true (street) vernacular, of the sort that Lao She penned (One sees this all to clearly in Mao Dun’s heavyweight triptych, where no street-talk or song appears at all).

One might even suggest that the problem has not yet been solved: Turandot (all 3 productions) was and remains the only “World Class” opera performed live and with safety for the box office: but the interlude players Ping-Pang-Pong hardly qualify as showmen elevees. The only near approach to a high-low tragic solution is of course Red Sorghum, wherein a lowlife entertainer rises to heroic then remorseful stature – but this engenders no tragic end-aria or song of despair (the aria is “sung” in retrospect though certainly the hero’s and references the first conjoning, moreover doing so with a humorous touch in showing Yu Zhan’ao as a gypsy…Perhaps Farewell My Concubine tries a trajectory of beggars to tragic lovers alos, but ti lacks the crucial ingredient of humor – raucous humor – so necessary to establishing the feel of the street performer cum beggar, not to mention the melodramaic manipulation of onlooker feelings. There is (never really was) the smell of the streets by the time that success then horror comes.

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