The venue was extraordinary: a vaulted, 2,400-seat opera house contained within a vast, transparent ellipsoid dome made of titanium and glass and surrounded by a windswept artificial lake. Known colloquially as “the giant egg,” Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts—futuristically designed, to the consternation of many in the Chinese architectural community, by Frenchman Paul Andreu—has welcomed audiences since 2007 to its three great halls in the center of the city, adjacent to Tiananmen Square.
The production, seen this past summer, was extraordinary as well: a richly appointed, musically buoyant Beijing Opera classic about a spoiled rich bride and the dowry, stowed in a lucky bejeweled purse, that she impulsively gives away, with life-changing consequences. The opera dates to 1940 and has been known variously by such titles as The Legend of the Unicorn Purse, The Jewelry Pouch, and The Purse to Encourage Having Honored Sons.
The show’s leading lady was beyond extraordinary. Zhang Huoding was returning to the stage following a four-year hiatus, and her breathlessly devoted fans had packed the house to welcome her back. The petite, full-voiced diva had played the selfish bride Xue Xiangling dozens of times across China, and when she made her entrance in this signature role, expressively brandishing the long sleeves of her embroidered gown, the roar of adulation could have been mistaken for sounds you’d hear at a concert by Beyoncé or Bruce Springsteen.
As unlikely as it seems, the 45-year-old Zhang—a modest and self-effacing proponent of a relatively esoteric art form—is riding a wave of national celebrity usually reserved for politicians or pop stars. This Sept. 2–3, she’ll ride that wave outside China for the first time, when a pair of Beijing Operas—The Jewelry Purse (its designated title for export) and an older work, The Legend of the White Snake—arrive in New York City at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, with Zhang starring in both productions.
The special limited engagement is sponsored by the China Arts & Entertainment Group (a creative entity under the administration of China’s Ministry of Culture, which has coproduced Chinese versions of the musicals Mama Mia! and Cats) and the prestigious National Academy of China Theatre Arts (NACTA), a sort of Juilliard School of Beijing. Zhang, who has studied with opera masters from the age of 15, graduated from NACTA in 2001 and, following her widely acclaimed solo concert of symphonic opera in the Great Hall of the People in 2007, became a teacher at the school.
This reporter was among a handful of Americans on hand to preview the Lincoln Center program and advise NACTA on the best way to introduce Zhang to American audiences.
“The question is not only how to impress Westerners with Zhang Huoding—the form itself needs promoting and explaining,” said NACTA spokesman Ben Wang during a brainstorming session at the school, also attended by Zhang’s colleagues and advisers (including her older brother, a fellow NACTA professor and martial arts specialist who performs in White Snake) as well as tour planners, New York City–based opera educators, and members of the Beijing press corps. The discussion ranged from such practical matters as publicity angles and poster design to the cultural and historical implications of Beijing Opera in the West.
Zhang herself was, true to form, nowhere in sight: The performer is notoriously press-shy and almost never gives interviews.
Her inaccessibility, it seems, has only served to burnish her appeal for the Chinese public. Those obsessed by Zhang’s performances include not only opera traditionalists but youngsters for whom her pop-star status has proved irresistible. At the conclusion of The Jewelry Purse performance, scores of young people wielding cellphones rushed the stage from all corners of the house, snapping photos and cheering. The raucous, sustained ovation prompted two solo encores, a rarity in U.S. opera houses.
Despite Zhang’s fame—her image in heavy makeup and gilded headdress can be seen on billboards and subway posters across the city—she reportedly continues to live simply, spending most of her time with her students and taking care of her four-year-old daughter, whose birth was the reason for her recent absence from the stage.
“I am not an ambitious person. I have very few shows every year, so I guess that’s why audiences want to see me,” Zhang remarked during a media event after the New York engagement was announced earlier this year. Asked about the upcoming shows, she ventured that she particularly likes the role of Bai Suzhen, the lead character in The Legend of the White Snake, who is a personified snake spirit married to a human man. “I was attracted to the role of Bai. She is crazy about love,” said Zhang, who performed the full work for the first time in 2000. “This classic work contains a tragic love story and lots of martial arts—so I believe that American audiences will like it.”
But will they? Those unfamiliar with Beijing Opera (known in previous generations as Peking Opera) will have a great deal to become accustomed to: The faces of the actors are painted red, white, black, yellow, or green to indicate character and status; the action is highly stylized and artificial; the performance is presentational, taking place in front of an embroidered curtain, with minimal decorative props (“a table and two chairs” is the watchword for the form’s less-is-more staging); the score, rather than being created specially by a composer, is based on sets of commonly used tunes, played by a small onstage orchestra dominated by a stringed instrument called jinghu and supplemented by plucked strings and percussion. The story of the play is told in recitation, while the singing is more concerned with expression of emotions.
Star quality has been an important element in Beijing Opera since its beginnings just over 200 years ago—quite late in the varied, almost 2,000-year history of Chinese traditional opera—when it evolved from huabu plays, historical stories or folk tales popular among laboring people. Cheng Changgeng, who died in 1880, is reputed to be the form’s founding father, and was the first in a series of masters virtually deified for their performing skills. It was in the 1920s that the unrivalled innovator Mei Lanfang came to dominate the theatrical stage in female (or dan) roles. And it was Mei who first successfully took Beijing Opera to Japan, the U.S. (in the spring of 1930), and Europe, and pioneered its transfer to radio, TV, and films.
How did Beijing Opera fare in the tumultuous mid-century years in China? Its development was encouraged in the early years of the People’s Republic, when many new operas on historical and modern themes appeared. But during the decade-plus regime of the Maoist Cultural Revolution, beginning in 1965, most opera troupes in China were disbanded, performers and scriptwriters were persecuted, and all operas were banned except the eight “model operas” that had been sanctioned by the government. It was only after the fall of the Gang of Four in 1976 that Beijing Opera enjoyed a revival and a return to popularity.
Zhang’s arrival on the scene and her artistic stature has contributed enormously to the endurance and contemporary vitality of Beijing Opera. Critics and commentators point out that her theatrical education can be traced directly back to Mei Lanfang and his predecessors in the 19th century, and her singing, reciting, and dancing have been praised for possessing “the demeanors of great masters.”
Her gender is particularly significant. Women got an early foothold, acting in Beijing Opera in Shanghai at the end of the 19th century and then in Beijing in 1912, but the practice was banned the following year. It was not until 1931 that acting by women and men on the same stage was restored. Thanks in large part to Mei’s international forays, the form flourished in the 1950s, and since then—even through the “model opera” years—theatrical companies have embraced women, men, and cross-gender performers together. Zhang’s prominence is both a culmination and an emblem of these developments.
Still, despite its rich ancestry, its codification in academia, its prominence in China’s new cultural agenda, and its burgeoning fan base, the fact is that the appeal of Beijing Opera remains comparatively limited. Only a tiny minority of Beijing’s 24 million or so citizens have ever actually witnessed a Beijing Opera production; now a considerably larger contingent of them have heard about the phenomenon that is Zhang Huoding.
And word is spreading internationally. What this will mean for an arcane, highly stylized but richly human (and inimitably Chinese) art form remains to be seen.