A local Chinese opera group is breathing new life into two ancient tales.
“Women in Times of War,” presented by Hwa Sheng Chinese Opera Club in Seattle, will showcase two popular stories from the repertory of Beijing Opera, the best known of traditional Chinese performing arts in the West, on Aug. 11 at the Meydenbauer Center.
Seattle Hwa Sheng Chinese Opera Club was founded in 1967 in Bellevue by a group of Beijing opera fans from Taiwan and China. Today, the opera club has more than 20 active members from the greater Seattle area practicing weekly and performing annually. Formal performances are held every other year, usually at the Meydenbauer Center Theater.
Drawing upon legends, folk stories and historical events, Beijing opera is stylized, with elaborate costumes, makeup and a complex system of aesthetic conventions governing every aspect of the performance. Devoid of realism, characters are defined by role types who tell stories and express emotions through gestures and choreographed movements and dance. Vocal deliveries consist of singing and sung speeches supported by a small orchestra, which not only underscores the emotions of individual characters but also controls the tempo and atmosphere.
In this production, two stories will provide a spectrum of Chinese theatrical aesthetics while distinctly focusing on women’s roles and emotions in China’s long and often blood-bathed ancient history.
Director Yiping Yu has performed in Beijing opera for decades. Considered an expert, she continues to teach others Beijing opera.
Like many ancient stories, the female characters are often not highlighted — or, at least, not as much as male characters. Yu said she wanted to see these popular stories in a slightly different way.
In “Women in Times of War,” Yu wanted to unify the two stories under a shared theme of a woman’s soul — to struggle, to endure, to survive and to succeed — particularly, to end a war.
“Once you have them under a theme, you give the characters more life, more soul,” she said. “These stories emphasize women’s virtues and emphasize women’s ability to endure and succeed — which hasn’t been brought to light.”
The first of the two stories, “On the Hillside,” tells the story of the testing of a wife by her disguised husband who just returned from a long and victorious military campaign. This story shows how traditional Chinese marriage regards female chastity as its primary value.
Jin Gao and Shuang Chiu Wang star in the story playing husband and wife, respectively.
In the story, the husband — who begins as a beggar — marries the prime minister’s daughter. Upon being captured by a princess and made king in another country, the prime minister’s daughter waits in a cave dwelling for 18 years for her husband to return. In other renditions of this story, the 18-year wait is often not highlighted — the audience doesn’t see the struggle and endurance the prime minister’s daughter experiences.
“This is the most representative Chinese opera piece,” Wang said. “It’s only part of the story, though. The rest of it tests the wife’s loyalty upon her husband’s return… and it has a happy ending.”
The second story, “The Woman Spy,” exemplifies female loyalty and chastity in a totally different way. In this case, a woman with her sexual power is employed as an effective political weapon. The woman spy, Xishi, served and corrupted, the enemy king to help her home country to defeat him. These two women’s stories offer two contrasting images of women’s existence in China’s war-torn past.
Xishi is portrayed by three different actors as to symbolize the time passed and the growth of the character. Mingzhu Jacobson, Rose Jang and Min Shi play Xishi.
“There are two different virtues in this opera,” Yu said. “These are very powerful stories.”
Jang said each female character takes on so much suffering for love — one of love for her husband and one of love for her country.
“They both endure and they are both successful,” she said. “Both end happy.”
Presenting these two stories highlighting women’s roles provided some challenges for the opera group.
Yu said it was important to enrich the characters but not really break away from the original character. However, she and the rest of the cast are confident they struck that balance.
“We’re really excited for this show,” Jang said. “Everyone has worked hard, and it shows how much we care. It’s a real passion for us.”
“Women in Times of War,” will show at 2 p.m. on Aug. 11 at Meydenbauer Center with subtitles of English translations of the dialogues and sung lyrics projected on stage to facilitate understanding and appreciation.
More information and ticket information can be found at www.meydenbauer.com or at Hwa Sheng Chinese Opera Club’s website (https://bit.ly/2ya8wnG).