One of China’s most celebrated stars, Zhang Huoding, is making her U.S. debut in two classic Beijing Operas at Lincoln Center, The Legend of the White Snake and The Jewelry Pouch.
Scenes from The Legend of the White Snake. Click to enlarge.
As Jim O’Quinn noted in a recent article on Huoding’s debut, “Those unfamiliar with Beijing Opera (known in previous generations as Peking Opera) will have a great deal to become accustomed to. The faces of the actors are painted red, white, black, yellow or green to indicate character and status, the action is highly styled and artificial; the performance is presentational, taking place in front of an embroidered curtain, with minimal decorative props…; the score, rather than being created specially by a composer, is based on sets of commonly used tunes, played by a small onstage orchestra dominated by a stringed instrument called jinghu and supplemented by plucked strings and percussion. The story of the play is told in recitation, while the singing is more concerned with expression of emotions.”
“Classic” Beijing Opera began only two centuries ago, a modern art form compared to the 2,000-year history of Chinese Opera in general. But The Legend of The White Snake is based on one of what the Chinese call the Four Great Folktales, a legend that goes back before the Ming dynasty, about an immortal snake (though looking like a very lovely woman) who falls in love with a man but is done in by a monk. This doesn’t do the story justice of course, but it isn’t the plot that engages. And, truth be told, the aspects of Beijing Opera most likely to appeal to untutored Western audiences — the acrobatics and martial arts — are less literally spectacular than we’re used to, given such productions brought to New York, such as Monkey Journey to the West in 2013.
What does come through, above all, is Zhang Huoding’s grace and charisma.