Backstage Musical and Chen Kaige’s “FAREWELL” — to what?

 PEKING OPERA IN CHEN KAIGE’S FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE

In FMC, traditional music and performance modes, much more than in Shangai Ttriad, are treated as objects for investigation – as topics to be dissected from afar by objective narrative rather than as a subject for a performace. Sadly, we do not get to hear much of the music. Even though the story is “about” the life history of two famous P/O performers, the author of the novel on which the story is based has had to assume that audiences either in onshore or offshore China would not be familiar with or even care about the subtleties of “pure” (unadulterated) performance. Thus, the portrait of the art-in-performance is not only abridged but it is lopsided: it focuses on the costumery, make-up, and martial-arts style acrobatics of P/O, while the sung and orchestral music appears only in brief snippets.

At first this truncated mode of presentation seems to be a device to signal that the subject is a “lost”, perhaps unrecoverable artform, living only in the short bursts of nostalgic memory of old folk. But there is more to it that that. Structurally, the preservation, the authenticity, of this art is not simply a matter of accurate performance or appreciation. It relates also to issues of property and of ownership, not the least of which is the value of the intellectual property rights implicit in the tradition. The main story line thus follows, not just the lives of 2 protagonists, but in the larger sense the changing basis of troupe ownership – ownership of costumes, props, performance locations, of the “scripts”, and of the labor of the junior members (slave-apprentices) of the troupe. Implicit, also, is a second more abstract level of ownership: the “right” to evaluate and patronize, even perhaps to invade the bodies of the principal actors as a trade-off for critical approbation. The exploration of ownership and of its problems indeed form the central “issue” of the story.

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