Dramatis personæ at the Beijing Opera.
  • Dramatis personæ at the Beijing Opera.
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“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.

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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