When we enter a theater of the Chinese opera, the first thing which we notice is a hanging in brilliant colours luxuriously embroidered. Then, we shall see the actors going up on scene with the sound of string musical instruments in bamboo or with the deafening noises of gongs and drums.
Among the artists who march past on scene, there could have first of all a handsome sturdy young man in warrior's costume, who makes somersaults and shows his skill in martial arts. Then could appear a young lady put on rows of pearls and dressed in brocket and silk embroidery, singing with a melodious and executing voiceThen could appear a young lady capped by rows of pearls and dressed in brocket and silk embroidery, singing with a melodious voice and executing a graceful dance. Then, there could have the famous King of monkeys, Sun Wukong, of the opera Peregrination Towards the West, with his specific tics, who scratches himself and makes farces. These characters are all representative of the Chinese traditional national opera, called also opera of Beijing 平劇 .
To go to the opera was for a long time a popular entertainment which enjoy as well common people as the royal Chinese family and aristocracy. Numerous men of letters and scholars even participated in the composition of the scenarios and the music. The emperors historically famous are regarded as the " honorary fathers of the Chinese opera " for their enthusiastic support for the art and especially for their musical technical knowledge. The emperor Minhuang of the dynasty of Tang (712-715, called also Xuan Zong) even founded 梨園 the Académie of Pear Garden, a troop of spectacle of music and dance within the court. Later, the profession of the singer of the Chinese opera was called " the profession by the Garden of Pear " and the actors “the disciples of the Pear Garden”.
The librettos of the operas of Beijing, which combine often the tragedy with the comedy, are strewed with song, dance and poetic narration in order to adapt for the scene the historic events and the popular legends. Another style of representation is the dialogue made in a language close to that of every day and the pantomime executed with common daily gestures. This style reflects in a funny and satiric way the reality of the society while being educational and entertaining.
Being a theatrical art called "economic", the Chinese opera had originally only a scene outdoors with a single backcloth and three other sides opened. The decoration is extremely simple. It includes a table, which could serve as writing desk, as civil servant's office and even as hill or as bridge. The transitions of space from a place to the other one are easy and economic.
Currently, the modern Chinese opera, appears on a scene in the form of framework. The system of stage setting, the professional conception of the decoration and the lights were gradually introduced. These new characteristics serve for enriching and for perfecting the effect of the representation without affecting at all that the traditional style of the opera.
The characters of the opera of Beijing are different by the sex, the age and the personality. The four types of the main characters are the 生 Sheng, 旦 Dan, the 淨 Jing and the 丑 Chou.
Sheng is a male character, who subdivides in his turn in 老生 Laosheng, 小生 Xiaosheng and 武生 Wusheng. Laosheng or old man of letters is a man of a certain age who wears a beard and pronounces his text in an imposing and serious way. Xiaosheng or young man is a pleasant and courteous gentleman who often plays the young passionate lover. Wusheng or warrior is skillful in martial arts; it is to this category that belongs the mischievous role of the King of monkeys, Sun Wukong.
Dan (interpreted traditionally by the male actors) indicates the various female roles, notably 老旦 Laodan, 青衣 Qingyi, 花旦 Huadan, 武旦 Wudan and 兵馬旦 Bingmadan. Laodan old woman whose style of song is close to that male of Laosheng. Qingyi, dressed in blue, is a young lady or of a certain age which remains virtuous, serious and reasonable. Huadan or Dan of flower could be unsuspicious, innocent and lively, either flirtatious and cantankerous. Wudan, martial, is a skillful fighter who often plays the devil of the myths. Bingmadan, Dan of horse and saber, is situated between Huadan and Wudan: she can be a general-woman who is brave, open and at the same time skillful as well in letters as in military matters.
Jing is a very skilful male character, either frank and direct, or intrigant and crafty. His painted face is slightly exaggerated so that his role can be identified at a glance. The designs and the colours used for the facial make-up have all their specific meanings, for example, the red symbolizes the loyalty and the courage; the black, the boldness and the ardour ; the blue, a character calculator ; the white, misleading and perfidious. The silver and the gold are reserved for the exclusive usage of the gods and the spirits. A face made up in a uniform way is called " complete face " ; a face, composed by numerous different elements, is named " split up face ". The face painted gives not only the information concerning the features of the personality and the mood of the character, but also has an artistic interest by itself.
The tradition which evolved around Chou, or the character of the clown, is very special. Chou is a facetious character, satirist who edges his way into the comic interval impromptu of the representation to amuse the spectators. He leaves also often the libretto to make objective comments on what occurs in the history, which constitutes a particular style of representation which is traditional in the national opera.
The costumes carried by the actors of the Chinese opera are inspired above all by the current clothing in China of approximately four centuries ago during the dynasty of Ming. The exaggerated loose sleeves, the handlebars inserted on the back of the costumes of the military officers and the pheasant feathers in the cover-chiefs were added to intensify the theatrical effect of the choreography of scene. These additional touches emphasize the various levels of gestures as well as the rhythms of the movements. Just like the facial make-up, the costumes reveal much on the character who carry them while remaining aesthetically attracting. In the past, the singers of the Chinese opera preferred rather to carry a worn and torn costume than to endorse one which does not represent the character correctly that he played.
Through centuries the actors developed a series of sophisticated formulas and symbolic systems of traditional representation. Beards worn by the characters, the loose sleeves, the folded fans and the clloured ribbons en satin used in dance, as well as the weapons used in fights and the various types of standards represented all the prolongation of the members of the human body. It requires a high level of skill to handle them and they contain rich theatrical significances. The actors must begin by receiving a strict training as of a very youth to be able to succeed naturally and with a perfect ease the song and the style of story, the movements of the eyes, the gestures of the hands and the gait, in order to interpret the thoughts and the emotions of the characters.
Before, this theatrical form tended to be a “theatre for the actors”. The latter call upon the tradition, in which they were versed to give impromptu interpretations.
Located on the left of the scene, the orchestra of the Chinese opera gathers players of 月琴 (lute in the moon shape), of 二胡 (Chinese cistre with two strings) and drummers who contribute musical accompaniment. These players had to cultivate a high level of tacit agreement and coordination with the actors in the course of the years to work together to be able to follow the interpretation and cooperate with them in a adequate way.