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A night at the (Chinese) opera

This Beijing performance art may be an acquired taste...

Dramatis personæ at the Beijing Opera.
Dramatis personæ at the Beijing Opera.

“Tonight we will see living national treasures!” our guide, Bao Chui, announced dramatically while poking his chopsticks around our noodle lunch in Beijing.

To the uninitiated, the Beijing Opera can be either a dazzling visual event or a headache-producing night of torment, but it has become a must-see for first-time visitors to the ancient imperial city.

Established in the late 18th century and growing in popularity ever since, Chinese opera combines elaborate costumes, makeup, dance, mime, acrobatics and martial arts in a nonstop flurry of action that sometimes has performers flying through the air in seemingly impossible contortions.

Few people fail to appreciate the action that will give the best martial arts movie a run for its money; however, it’s the music and singing that Westerners have a problem with. For those who truly enjoy it, it is an acquired taste.

The rising and falling atonal counter rhythms based on ancient Chinese court music seem not only unfathomable to the Western ear used to melodies in 4/4 time, to many they're an acoustic assault.

Lost in translation in Beijing.

One friend who had attended before told me he found it akin to cats meowing all night. Bao even warned us before entering that in the mixed audience of Chinese locals and curious Western tourists, it is not uncommon for the tourists to get up and leave during the performance.

Our little group found it fascinating, if unfathomable, as flying wizards did battle with ancient dragons and ended up saving the beautiful princess to a final standing ovation. It was enchanting even though I found it hard on the ears.

Exiting with the surging crowd, I asked Bao what he thought of his own traditional art form.

“It’s sort of like fingernails on a chalkboard to me,” he said. “I prefer Bruce Lee movies.”

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Dramatis personæ at the Beijing Opera.
Dramatis personæ at the Beijing Opera.

“Tonight we will see living national treasures!” our guide, Bao Chui, announced dramatically while poking his chopsticks around our noodle lunch in Beijing.

To the uninitiated, the Beijing Opera can be either a dazzling visual event or a headache-producing night of torment, but it has become a must-see for first-time visitors to the ancient imperial city.

Established in the late 18th century and growing in popularity ever since, Chinese opera combines elaborate costumes, makeup, dance, mime, acrobatics and martial arts in a nonstop flurry of action that sometimes has performers flying through the air in seemingly impossible contortions.

Few people fail to appreciate the action that will give the best martial arts movie a run for its money; however, it’s the music and singing that Westerners have a problem with. For those who truly enjoy it, it is an acquired taste.

The rising and falling atonal counter rhythms based on ancient Chinese court music seem not only unfathomable to the Western ear used to melodies in 4/4 time, to many they're an acoustic assault.

Lost in translation in Beijing.

One friend who had attended before told me he found it akin to cats meowing all night. Bao even warned us before entering that in the mixed audience of Chinese locals and curious Western tourists, it is not uncommon for the tourists to get up and leave during the performance.

Our little group found it fascinating, if unfathomable, as flying wizards did battle with ancient dragons and ended up saving the beautiful princess to a final standing ovation. It was enchanting even though I found it hard on the ears.

Exiting with the surging crowd, I asked Bao what he thought of his own traditional art form.

“It’s sort of like fingernails on a chalkboard to me,” he said. “I prefer Bruce Lee movies.”

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4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs
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