The Opera is an insight into the fragile world of the Peking Opera, one of the most revered artforms of the Chinese national scene.
The work focuses on the transformation from male to female, and from female to male, of the Peking Opera artists. Balancing moments of pure visuality with behind the scenes footage, the video underscores the striking avantgardist qualities of this most traditional of artforms.
The Opera is accompanied by a specially commissioned score by composer Benoit Granier which incorporates elements of traditional Chinese and contemporary electronic music.
Peking Opera is one of China’s most revered traditional music and theatre art forms. Hailed by the Chinese Government as a ‘national treasure’ and the ‘pride of the Chinese people’, Peking opera also faces the challenges that are typical to many global art forms today: that of staying ahead of the times and allowing modernization, and at the same time of preserving its tradition . With he advent of new and mostly westernized pop culture into modern‐day China, Peking Opera is endangered to be sublimated onto the outskirts of the Chinese entertainment industry.
Once the principal and, at times, only available entertainment in Old Beijing, Peking Opera was a favourite entertainment of China’s Emperors and their concubines in the Forbidden City, as well as of the hoi polloi of Beijing who used to crowd the old city’s numerous tea houses and small local theatres, following their favourite actors to every performance on offer.
Today the young audiences in China might find this beautiful and mysterious art form to be challenging. That is why the input from contemporary Western artistsic tradition will be essential in paving the way for modernization of the Opera as well as ensure the growing popularity with both younger and older generations. This process of modernization will also allow a ‘way into’ the art of Peking Opera for the new, international audiences.
The particularly appealing and unique visual and artistic elements in Peking Opera that international public finds magnetically poetic and mysterious are the ‘archaic’ costumes made of elaborate hand‐embroidered silk, its historical and notoriously long narratives, the stylized gestures, and the make‐up that famously takes up to two hours to apply and requires at least two specially‐trained assistants to administer. Most recognisable is the typically high‐pitched singing, that many westerners might find difficult to comprehend without a new ‘facelift’ given by the [possibility to be presented as an element in a contemporary visual art project.
The Artist’s Story
When I first came across Peking Opera in a small, semi‐dilapidated teahouse in the old (and now demolished) area of Qianmen, south of the Forbidden City in Beijing, I felt a magnetic pull, and was instantly transfixed. It was a truly revelatory experience, and I responded to everything in this genre that most friends of mine at the time in fact found off‐putting and strange. I did not of course follow the story that was unfolding on the stage, and nor did I recognize the famous Peking Opera star, the first officially trained ‘Nan dan’‐ a male singing female roles: Liu Zheng, but I was drawn in by the music, the singing, the dancing and the costumes. This was the other world, the world of pure art, in which cerebral understanding has no place, and only raw emotional reaction matters. I fell in love!
Two and a half years later, and with over 60 hours of video time‐shot in various Peking Opera performances, theatres, dressing rooms, and private meetings, I have collected extensive and often unique material that spans the private and public life of the genre of Peking Opera. The journey has been a mesmerizing and often magical experience of this pure art form, but also a real eye‐opener into the life of artists in China today.
In contrast to the purely money-seeking and often derivative activities of New Chinese artists, Peking Opera actors are modest and dedicated artists remaining true to their chosen art form, often with no financial gain at all, beyond recognition, and with a dedicated following of merely a small group of usually older generation opera fans. And yet their art struck me as not only beautiful and pure, but also strangely contemporary and almost modernist.
So, I set off on the mission to make my own art project using the astonishing material I had collected during the two and a half years I had devoted to this subject. The result is here, and is, in my view, my best work to date. I have created a film, a photo installation and a costume collection with live performance, and yet I feel that there is a lot more to this project than mere ‘objects’ of art.
It is the emotional investment that counts most for me. I will never forget the moments of true artistic revelation and discovery that I experienced whilst making ‘The Opera’. I feel that the project has brought a new dimension to my work, and I am very excited to share this experience with my audiences both in China and in Ireland, where the love and appreciation of traditional art forms such as theatre, music and dance are still very much ‘alive and kicking’.
So far, I have been incredibly lucky to receive support and encouragement to pursue this project from Culture Ireland, the Embassy of Ireland in P.R.China, Peking Opera Theatre and Shanghai Opera Theatre. I have also been incredibly fortunate in meeting my main protagonists and now close friends and ‘allies’ in this project, stars of Peking and Shanghai opera troupes, Mr. Yang Lei and Ms. Wang Pei Yu.
The other fortunate coincidence‐ or a stroke of luck‐ was a meeting in Beijing with Mr. Benoit Granieb, a French composer with close links to Ireland (he held the post of Professor of Music at Trinity College, Dublin for 8 years), who is currently Professor‐in‐ Residence at the Beijing Academy of Music, and who not only wrote a spectacular score for the Opera video and time lapse pieces, combining traditional Irish and Chinese music, but also offered to cajole the whole gang of traditional musicians from both Ireland and China to perform live during the project launch in Venice and other cities around the world.