By Charlie Lynn, Staff Writer
Kun and Beijing Opera singer Yonghong Jia visited Haverford’s campus on Wednesday to sing two short opera pieces and discuss the history and performance of Chinese operas. Jia performed portions of both The Peony Pavilion and The Drunken Beauty Yang after a brief talk on the numerous styles of Chinese opera and the years of practice necessary to perfect their performance.
Jia arrived in the United States from China in 1999 as part of New York’s Lincoln Center Festival’s production of The Peony Pavilion. From 1999 to 2003, Jia toured with the production around the world, visiting multiple countries including Australia, Italy, Singapore, Australia and Denmark, to name a few. Jia currently lives in New Jersey and continues to perform as well as educate people about Chinese culture and art.
“I am always interested in spreading the art of Beijing opera.” Jia said, “I was so thrilled to be able to talk about this art from today.”
During Jia’s talk, she gave examples of the four main characters in Beijing opera: sheng (male characters), dan (female characters), jing (male characters with painted faces) and chou (clown-like characters). Each character has multiple sub-types. Jia explained that specific types of characters are assigned to performers at a young age. Different character types not only differ vocally, but they each have a specific way of moving on stage.
Jia also detailed the intensity of training for young performers of Chinese opera. Many begin studying at eight years old. Chinese opera, she said, soon becomes their main focus. Jia herself was a latecomer to the art form. She explained, “I didn’t start learning until I was 17. Firstly, because I had been a dancer when I was young, so that was my main focus. Also, I didn’t want to lose something in my education.” She joked that many of the schools in which Chinese opera is studied, “are like the army” in the intensity of their practice.
The first piece that Jia performed was from The Peony Pavilion. This year marks the 400th anniversary of the death of author of The Peony Pavilion, the Ming Dynasty era playwright Tang Xianzu. Haverford Professor Shizhe Huang compared the works of Tang with those of William Shakespeare.
“This year we are celebrating the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare and of Tang Xianzu, maybe China’s Shakespeare.” She characterized the performance of The Peony Pavilion by Jia as “part of this celebration.”
During a break for a costume change for Jia, audience members were invited on stage to try on some of the other Chinese opera costumes Jia had brought along with her. Pablo Teal HC‘20, who at one point was dressed in a bright gown and headpiece, complete with a sword, described the experience as fantastic.
As a third-year Chinese student, he explained that it had been highly recommended by his Chinese professor that he attend the event.
“I haven’t seen Chinese opera before, but I think it’s fantastic. It’s really cool. He added, “As someone who also studies music, the meter is so different. The approach is so different.”
Nicholas Banks (HC ’20) said he also enjoyed the performance. Banks was already familiar with Chinese opera, but, he said, “It was really great to learn more specific details about this art form. Obviously it’s something that’s not talked about that often. It’s just great to understand more about it.”