Part of the reason for this frigidity is that “arias” and recitatives are through-composed, and do not have the structure of verse/refrain or other kinds of punctuated repetition that facilitate extension and variation in true folk music. The reason for this non-repetitive recitative format is well known: in Peking opera (as opposed to Kunqu) the music is fitted to PRE-EXISTING, often incomprehensible lyrics (at least as far as the audience is concerned; incomprehensible first because of rather elevated language of the rhetoric, and second, because performing troupes were originally provincial and carried on in regional dialects). (NB: Recently, this problem has begun to be resolved by the use of off-screen translations into modern baihua Chinese on live screens). Given that the musical (and choreographical) translation of these texts depended mainly on the ornamentation and virtuosic prolongation of the words of the text (making them to some extent easier to follow), and the balletic mimesis by equally non-cadenced random-rythm dance, there is no obvious verse/refrain structure for elaboration or transfer to new lyrics. (This is of course NOT true for the acrobatics and for the chou parts, any more than it is true in xiangsheng, closely associated with the live performance of opera…). The only recurring element in the singing and instrumental music is a two-line riff played over and over by stringed instruments (erhu?), apparently either as distractive background while the characters move about, or as a tuning motif to get everyone onto the same pentatonic scale. This almost childlike string motif is indeed recurrent, but it is too mechanical for melodic extension. And its rhythmic underpinning is far too agitated to support the (chiefly) lyrical singing.
(Standard PO er-hu refrain):
A second reason for the rigidity of performance flow would have to be the crowded complexity of the onstage action – combining as it does, elaborate stylized gesture- dancing, song, and of course martial-arts like tumbling and acrobatics that are performed in tandem by two or three stunt-players at the same time . As we can figure out from the demanding choreography we see the pupils practicing (rather akin to gymnastics, actually) in school, the cross tabulation of all this activity requires that every movement be pre-choreographed. Obviously there is no room here for ad libing (sp.) in any category of stage movement.
Note to readers: A second essay on “Farewell My Concubine” appears below a post dated Dec. 12, in which I take up as context the subject of the backstage “musical” (=opera) and how it works – or doesn’t – in the film here considered; as well, also, as the penalty paid for Hong Kong based production. – see https://asianimperialisms.com/2012/10/12/chen-kaiges-farewell-a-new-role-for-old-music-the-genv-cinema-reexamines-chinas-musical-past/3/