- The Washington Times - Friday, October 14, 2005

For classical music lovers accustomed to Western-style opera, Chinese opera is assuredly a different cup of tea.

Washingtonians not already in the know will find this out if they can cop a scarce ticket to “Female Generals of the Yang Family,” an offering from the China National Peking Opera Company currently in the midst of an all-too-short engagement at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. It’s the company’s first appearance here since 1980.

Chinese opera is, of course, classical music, too, just another style. But the music does take some getting used to. Songs are sung in a highly stylized, swooping manner appropriate to a language whose speech itself is characterized by rising and falling tones. Singers, fantastically attired in exaggerated makeup and elaborate and colorful costuming, are accompanied by a small, percussive orchestra comprised of traditional Chinese instruments, which, in this production at least, are placed stage right, right up there with the cast. And frenetic activities and battle scenes abound.

The storytelling in Chinese opera might strike some as a bit simplistic, although Western opera aficionados often have the same complaint. Musical drama is, after all, focused on highly emotional moments, leaving other inconvenient threads of the plot behind.

“Female Generals,” based on the actual history of the Northern Song Dynasty, is the episodic tale of a family of military dynasts who’ve lost nearly all their heroic male leaders in a series of epic battles. Not to be deterred by disaster, the surviving widows, warriors themselves, band together under their 100-year-old matriarch, She Tiajun, to lead their battered army against a formidable foe, saving China and the emperor and covering themselves in glory in the process. Lady ninjas never looked so good.

The current production, adapted by Fan Junhong and Lu Ruiming with music arranged by Zhao Jinsheng, premiered in China’s capital in 1959.

While Western opera contains its fair share of fancy stage business and spectacle, ranging from the elaborate ballets of Romantic French opera to the fiery dragon in Wagner’s “Siegfried,” the frenetic activity in Chinese opera is off the charts. Indeed, Chinese opera will appear to some as a bit of circus, mixing serious and martial singing with comic patter, swordplay, spectacular acrobatics, and anything else that will serve to either move the plot or stir emotion.

In addition to singing, the soloists engage in complicated, choreographed moves, martial arts and, at times, somersaults and physical contortions right before they have to sing another emotional song. It’s no mean feat to catch one’s breath after such strenuous activities, but the company’s polished cast, led by Deng Min in particular, as the widow Mu Guiying, is more than up to the task.

Thursday’s opening performance was polished to a fare-thee-well, although technical problems popped up. The Eisenhower’s relatively small stage seemed a bit constraining to the acrobats, who constantly risked collision with the orchestra’s microphones, and the amplification system irritated in quiet passages with its noticeable hum.

But on the whole, this current Peking Opera company extravaganza proves to be an amazingly effective introduction to the world of Chinese opera and should go down as one of the highlights of the Kennedy Center’s monthlong Festival of China.


WHAT: The China National Peking Opera Company production of “Female Generals of the Yang Family”

WHEN: Today, 8 p.m.

WHERE: Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater

TICKETS: $48 to $70.

PHONE: 202/467-4600

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