Yuan Xuefen’s Liangzhu is far and away the more “folkish” of the two, and thus merits an analysis of what made SXO SXO.
The first attribute of the form is the preservation of the repartee or guessing game dialogue that pervades many “minor” opera genres (most spectacularly the Guangxi “ethnic” opera Liu Sanjie). This could occur in gender-straight opera, but in that case it had to embody what we would call “sassing” – by “country” women, of pompous but clumsy male scholars or local hegemons. Unigendering and (often unremarked) compression of the age hierarchy (women did not prompt persuasiveness still less humor in their laosheng roles) did not do away with the sabotage of hierarchy, but it levelled (flattened) the angle of verbal exchange, making teasing and (=) (good natured) trickery or riddletalk the preferred platform for repartee. Moreover, it was the perfect conversational matrix for transvestite (seraglio) innuendo. Gender masking and unmasking being so vital part of many Yueju plots (such as Mulan canjun and Meng Lijun), the tension of immanent discovery (or its prevention) played put easily into verbal judo; the audience internally bet on who was who and who would “win”, making playwatching a comfortable neighbor to actual (live) gambling.
The bi-partnering of famous actresses – a kind of stageboard chastity keeping two role-digressive actresses in alliance over an extended period of time – also encouraged jocular verbal fencing. As in the Jack Benny/Rochester or Amos/Andy biplay, the humor worked (or worked best) when built over an extended history of audience familiar crosstalk, both within the play, and between the “roles”, something that bi-partnering facilitated. Whereas lone-tree actresses were by definition without easy humor – they had to be on their guard.
(see segment from upload…).
The roots of repartee opera (not too strong a term) have not been explored by professional scholars, but rather taken are for granted as part and parcel of the SXO subgenre. But if I had to guess – on the basis of the near universality of the structure – we are here dealing with a late phase evolution of mating game play before it was driven underground by late dynastic strictures on female choice in mate selection. Like most such expurgated traditions, it probably survived by re-clothing itself as unserious, innocent girl’s chatter (or by darkening into myth and matemorphosis), but mate-capture (or rejection) by strophic repartee remains very much alive in SXO, and nowhere moreso than in LiangZhu, the great granddaddy of all Yueju.
Feminine Choral Commentary (nv hechang).
So accustomed are we outlander critics to the interdependence (in opera) of individual “play” and collective comment or explication, that it is easy to overlook the uniqueness of the SXO form in sharing this same double-dictive formulae. Since we can experience SXO vs other minor opera performance only via media reproduction (mainly cinema), and since choral (qua themesong) interlacing is a nearly universal feature of ballad or epic tale-telling in film, it is hard to know how far back or deeply rooted the female unison goes, but it is certainly present in the printed scriptbooks for as far back as they can be found (ca 1900).
Chronological depth apart, it is a device that makes 20th century SXO rise from mere story-telling (the source of most of the scripts) to a remarkable altitude in regards self-surveillance and moral-religious comment; by its invocation one is immediately persuaded that the story in not just an ancient one (renewed over generations) but one built into the soniscape itself: nature or cosmos seem to sing, but not in joy, rather in consolation (if it happened before it must surely happen again). What we used to call “solace” for the afflicted, a kind of reassurance of community overhanging the story-canopy.
If moreover it begins to enter SXO performance well before scripts became pre-scripted. the poetry must have been memorized before its literal meaning was understood – which is one reason I would guess that such singing was assigned to children, whether within or around the edges of the troupe.