Real Chinese opera, deftly executed
By Joseph T. Rozmiarek
Special to The Advertiser
By Joseph T. Rozmiarek
There is a spectacle on the University of Hawai'i's Kennedy Theatre stage this month, but only the truly disciplined will see it through.
The jingju, or Beijing opera, production "Woman Generals of the Yang Family" is a contemporary historical piece about women warriors who rally to save a mountain pass against invaders.
To Western eyes, it is filled with color and pageantry. To Western ears, it can be atonal, shrill and discordant. And to Western sensibilities, it is formal, structured and emphasizes form over content.
Chinese opera is not new to university audiences, where it has been periodically produced for several years — originally in Chinese, and recently in English translation with projected subtitles to ease audiences through the intricately intoned arias.
The current production is directed by Elizabeth Wichmann-Walczak, who, with Huimei Chang, translated the English-language version that premieres in Hawai'i this month.
After months of study with Chinese teachers and supervisors, the cast of university students fills out the production's distinctly different two halves. Since mastering the art form of jingju takes years of study, the UH singers and actors are memorizing and replicating their roles — creating a representation of Chinese opera, but ostensibly a fairly accurate one.
The first half of the evening is largely static and most difficult for the audience, primarily devoted to words and striking poses as the women of the Yang family learn of their general's defeat and gather together to do battle themselves.
The second act is primarily visual, filled with formal formations and battle scenes that are less demanding and marked by some exciting physical moments.
The central figure in both acts is Mu Guiying, widow of the slain general, and a formidable force in her own right. The difficult role is split between two performers, with Annie Lipscomb delivering the sung passages and ritual poses in Act 1 and Jessica Jacob suiting up for the taxing physical demands of Act 2's battles.
Stylized make-up makes the two women strikingly similar in appearance and costume colors help unify the illusion of a single character.
Bits of humor shine through as the enemy leaders scoff at a defending army composed of "12 old women" and "aging widows."
The sole aural exception in the performance is Jamie Torres as the 100-year-old Yang matriarch She Taijun, whose delivery is decidedly Western. This makes her speech easily recognizable, but no doubt less authentic.
Costumes, already elaborate in Act 1, become even more showy and intricate in Act 2, featuring headdresses, flags and feathers, colorful embroidered panels, rich colors and sparkling accents. Highly stylized and detailed painted faces, hairpieces and beards complete the exotic picture.
"Woman Generals of the Yang Family" gets high marks as a disciplined and difficult performance and an unusual cultural event of significance to the greater university community.