About Chinese operas and in particular bangzi

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By Jacques Pimpaneau

Chinese opera is best known under his operatic Beijing form or this is only a particular kind among many others, even if in the middle of the twentieth century, probably because he was the favorite kind of the capital, he gained such dominance that theatrical troupes were formed in many provinces. For example, some years ago, had come to Paris the Beijing Opera Troupe of Yunnan Province, name that surprised some people. That’s why some Chinese intellectuals offered to call it National Opera to distinguish it from other local operas. But today, modern life in big cities like Shanghai and Beijing makes it difficult for Peking Opera, which is not what it was in the days of its glory. At the end of the eighteenth century, next to the Kunqu style, appreciated by educated circles, existed local operas whose troops also came to play in the capital, as appreciated by the Emperor. Some of the local operas, as Puju Liyuanxi Shanxi and Fujian were old and dated back at least to the late sixteenth century. Without documents on popular culture, their origin is difficult to trace further back in time. Others were formed later: the Peking Opera was formed in the nineteenth century, and this phenomenon continued into the twenties of this century with the appearance of Yueju in the Shanghai region and Pingju in the northeast.

How to differentiates each local opera? Basically nor theatrical technique or by the types of characters or by the costumes, which always indicate the social status of the character and not the time when the play happens, even if some theater play exist only in some sorts, if the makeup painted faces have local variants, if the suits may have features, such as the use of glitter, or embroidery as well in Cantonese opera.

The uniqueness of each holds to a particular mixture of air used, a different composition of the orchestra and the dialect used. It is not possible to identify the type of a play from a photograph or even a silent film, but we do it immediately from a sound recording. For example, in Cantonese opera, next to local melodies and tunes influenced by the west, figures the er huang, as in Beijing’s Opera. But this one, called er wang, if it appears the same when looking at the score, sounds quite different, as it is sung in Cantonese and accompanied by an orchestra whose instruments are not the same, even including western instruments as the violin.

In those local operas, there is one that deserves special attention, because born in the north-west, he won the northern half of China where, while remaining basically the same, it is diversified across regions. He even influenced the south types, which resumed his musical style. This is the bangzi. Before him, there were mainly two kinds of opera: Kunqu, whose melodies have a beginning and an end and are accompanied by the flute, and especially in the countryside, the Gaoqiang, whose singing is accompanied by percussion and towards the end by a choir in the background, and whose orchestral music melodic is used between the sung passages. Probably at the end of the sixteenth century, and perhaps earlier, has formed in the area of ​​Tongzhou (of Shanxi Province) and in that of Puzhou (southern Shanxi Province) – which are separated by a river and whose dialects are almost similar – a new style where the song were accompanied by an old two-stringed, supported by a three-stringed lute and other stringed instruments, where the melodic structures were such that ‘they could be extended at will, which implied to the same length, in this case seven or ten syllables per verse, where the pace was set by two wooden pieces of jujube that entrechoquait a bangzi, which gave its name to this new genre. Melodies fixed structures taken from the Kunku were kept, but only as musical interludes with some scenes without singing, and percussion for the gesture. This bangzi spread because it allowed a greater flexibility than the Kunqu to mount new parts, because it was more melodious than the Gaoqiang and because he was more alive and more popular. He won all the Yellow River valley, Gansu west to east Shandong and Hubei to the south, that is to say, in all provinces whose dialect belonged to the same acoustic system. There was brought by wealthy merchants from Shanxi who were also bankers and who could afford to bring a troupe of their province when they stood in the distance; thus bangzi troops settled in the capital and throughout the Hebei Province in the late eighteenth century. This musical style bangzi also influenced other genres: Xipi, a music style of Beijing opera comes from bangzi, and Erhuang, the other style, if he is from Anhui, had him also already adopted the musical system of bangzi. Most southern local operas have also included this system, often by a phenomenon of indirect diffusion from neighboring genres.

Obviously this bangzi was then diversified through areas where he was settled, adapting to the dialect and music place. Thus now we talk Hebei bangzi, which became the largest bangzi. It prevails in the neighboring provinces of Liaoning, Jilin, Heilongqiang, Inner Mongolia and Shandong to. Early this century, some of his troops would even play in Shanghai and Nanjing. His repertoire contains over five hundred classical pieces. But fell into disuse from the thirties, especially because of the war, he experienced a renaissance in recent years to become one of the most popular genres right now because it has some remarkable actors, and also because the troops were smart, instead of upgrading with more or less taste the classics, they continue to play according the tradition, while showing, this time in a modern way, new rooms, bringing then a very satisfactory solution to the great Chinese cultural problem of our time: how to be modern while remaining Chinese.