In attending these startling performances, it is necessary to suspend preconceived ideas and to let yourself be overwhelmed by cultural traditions which have roots in ancient China from as early as the 2nd century. However, the Peking Opera, as a specific entity, dates from the late 18th century.

Yu Kuizhi in <i>Farewell My Concubine</i> © China National Peking Opera Company
Yu Kuizhi in Farewell My Concubine
© China National Peking Opera Company
Four troupes of Anhui performers brought this form of opera to Beijing in 1790 for the celebrations marking the 80th birthday of the Qianlong Emperor, and it was originally staged for the court. In 1828 Hubei troupes of performers arrived in Beijing and performed jointly with the Anhui troupes. What we see is called Peking Opera, but it originated from southern Anhui and eastern Hubei which share the same dialect.

Chinese opera makes references to its 'melodies'. I believe this means musical patterns rather than specific tunes, although the opera was influenced by folksongs. The music falls into xi pi  (a reference to puppet shows with singing) and is energetic and fast, or Er huang, which has a soft and melancholic sound.

In the two productions, a live band plays upon ancient instruments such as a mandolin, a Beijing fiddle, a four-stringed lute, a horn, drums, cymbals. The Peking Opera band is divided into wen chang, which accompanies singing with orchestral music, and wu chang which accompanies acting and acrobatics with percussion. Music includes arias, fixed-tune patterns and percussion patterns. It often seemed as if the voice was another orchestral instrument. The content of the two operas at the Sadler's Wells were drawn from Chinese history and folklore.

The characters are stylized archetypes from Chinese culture: they are classified as Dan or female roles; Sheng or male roles; Jing or painted- face male roles; and Chou or clown roles. The painted faces are colour-coded; for example, white means scheming, while red stands for loyalty and courage. The makeup is elaborate and traditional. I was once a visitor to the Chinese opera school in Taipei. I was offered an opportunity to be made up by one of the art masters and I suggested the female heroine, but the master informed me that it would take him three and a half hours to accomplish this. He demonstrated that first he would have to lift my brow by twisting a band of material and tying it very tightly around my forehead. This produced lifted eyebrows. I settled for a clown in black and white, which took 30 minutes. Master proceeded with a paint brush and a block of black pigment, which he crushed.

Zhu Hong (Yu Ji) and Liu Kuikui (Emperor Xiang Yu) © China National Peking Opera Company
Zhu Hong (Yu Ji) and Liu Kuikui (Emperor Xiang Yu)
© China National Peking Opera Company

In Farewell My Concubine, the concubine Yu Ji, played by Zhu Hong, not only displayed her dazzling voice but moved with grace and skill in her proleptic sword dance. Liu Kuikui cast as the Emperor Xiang Yu, had a vocal range which contained an elaborate ability to colour his sound to characterize his emotional state. There was much dialogue in this piece, and it was interesting to see how the dialogue was technically placed like the singing.

Before I attended the performance, I wondered why the singing, which is so unsettling to Western ears, is called 'opera'. The answer is that the voices have extraordinary qualities and variation; they are powerful and beautiful voices; they are taught to sing in a particular manner. Although the end sound is different from our operatic sound, from where I was sitting, the training techniques appeared similar. The notes are sung without vibrato and require perfect pitch.

Both The Warrior Women of Yang and Farewell My Concubine are stories of military victory and military defeat. In the latter, there is a long disussion of military tactics which lead to the downfall of Xiang Yu through hubris. With a final aria expressing her love, his concubine determines that “I will not be your liability”, and she kills herself.

<i>Farewell My Concubine</i> © China National Peking Opera Company
Farewell My Concubine
© China National Peking Opera Company

Mei Lanfang (1894-1961) was one of the most famous Peking opera artists. He is known for his qingyi roles, a type of female role. One of his parts had been the Concubine in Farewell. His smooth, perfectly timed, elegant and poised style became known in opera circles as the 'Mei School'. Zhu Hong is a Tsingyi actor of the Mei School. The current actors seem to have famous mentors who prepare them for specific roles. Liu Kuikui as Xing Yu has as his mentor, Yang Chi, one of the most famous Jing (painted-face) players.

Farewell My Concubine seemed to contain seven scenes of dialogue and military confrontation, with scene eight reserved for the tragic end which featured singing. The opera portrays a feudal society with strong class divisions. The spectacular costumes are part of the designation of power and rank. Now that I have seen operas of warriors and emperors, I would hope to witness those other operas in the repertory: on love, sorcery and ghosts.