My wife and I went to 越剧, Shaoxing Opera, tonight at Yifu Theater in Shanghai. I’d never been to any Chinese opera before, save for the Sichuan Opera mask show at a local restaurant. The story was fairly easy to follow, basically a romantic triangle deal, and I was surprised to find that I was actually interested in the whole production.
Many foreigners can’t understand Chinese opera – and it is opera, not a cartoon, so I suppose it’s much like in the West: you either appreciate it or you don’t. I went in with low expectations. Yifu Theater, on the corner of Fuzhou Road and Yunnan Road, has been refurbished inside, making it really attractive. From the moment the curtain went up, the audience, including myself, was captured by the vivid costumes and backdrops. Everything was colorful and the singing and acting were wonderful.
For those of you who don’t know, Shaoxing Opera is more or less a musical. The show lasted about two hours and twenty minutes, and was fairly entertaining, even for a guy like me who only understood 50% of what was going on. On either side of the stage were large screens displaying the words/lyrics for people to read along. This would be particularly important since China has hundreds of styles of opera, all sung in different dialects. Shaoxing opera wasn’t as different from Mandarin as I expected, and after the first act, I was able to follow along while reading the words on the screens, which were nice and clear. There were plenty of words that I didn’t know, most of which were rather ancient words to do with love and treachery, but between the acting and the language I understood I could sort it out. (I better well had after more than five years in this country.)
On interesting aspect was the seating of certain fan sections. To the lower left were the fans of the main love interests, and to the right were the fans of the main antagonist. It was interesting to see them clap loudly and excitedly after a particularly well-sung song or soliloquy. Most of the rest of the audience clapped only occasionally. The audience murmured from time to time when something especially interesting or unexpected happened, much like tennis fans will at Wimbledon when there’s a controversial call.
The disappointing aspects of the performance were twofold. First was the temperature of the room. It was 34 degrees out today, and though the show began at quarter after seven, it was still very warm inside. There was no air-conditioning in the theater. I couldn’t believe it. True, most of the opera-goers were older people who in China generally don’t like air-con, but this was really uncomfortable. I could take it for the first hour, but with a room full of about 300 people and hot lights, the poor actors must have been baking. Second, also weather-related, was some audience odor issues. Cell phone use was not bad, due to announcements at the start and ushers everywhere trying to prevent it as well as stopping flash photography. But people around us were taking off their shoes. On a hot day that just isn’t right. I know people want to relax, but seriously, foot odor is not what I’m looking for when I buy tickets to the opera. We were in the cheap seats, 80 RMB a piece, not the cheapest but certainly not in the orchestra, and you do get what you pay for. I guess some people come to the opera to relax – it was certainly not a black tie event, with most people in slacks or jeans and those awful-looking blouses all the 50-something women in Shanghai seem to wear. People didn’t talk too much, at least less than at the average cinema, but the smell really was distracting
Overall, it was a good experience, and I hope to go again soon. We’ll have to seek out a different venue with air-conditioning, though the Fuzhou Road theater is supposed to have the best troupes and shows. Or we’ll just have to wait six months until the weather cools off. Either way, I was pleasantly surprised (in more ways than one) at my first Chinese opera experience.