We had been flirting with the idea of attending some Chinese opera -- a complex mixture of highly stylized singing, theatre, acrobatics and fencing that utilizes well-known stories and characters and wild costumes -- but were unsure of the boys' tolerance for an entire performance. The opportunity in Chengdu to see a variety of Sichuan entertainment including some Sichuan opera seemed like a good compromise.
The performance was held in the courtyard of a traditional teahouse where the large crowd was served wonderful jasmine tea and snacks; masseuses were standing by to pummel intensively while you watched.
The evening started with performances by a Chinese instrumental ensemble consisting of a variety of drums and cymbals in the percussion section, an erhao (2 stringed instrument held vertically on the lap and bowed like a cello), a lute, a large cello-like instrument, and several reed instruments similar to recorders with various sized and shaped ends.
One of the features of Sichuan opera is the use of masks by the performers to designate which character they are playing; each colour and series of markings indicates the nature of the character (i.e. good, evil, rich, etc.). The really amazing thing is that they change these masks in the wink of an eye -- literally! Several live performers, as well as a puppet, demonstrated this amazing skill and we sat enthralled as we tried to figure out how it all worked.
Adrian and Robin were convulsed with laughter during the performance of a traditional Sichuan opera song. The style of singing seemed outrageous to our ears -- extremely high pitched, whining, and nasal beyond belief -- but we tried to appreciate the skill in which it was delivered....and tried to keep the boys quiet!!
An unusual performance of hand shadow puppetry (using the hands to create shadows on a screen -- kind of like you used to do on your bedroom wall with a flashlight -- but with ever so much more sophistication) had the boys' complete attention as the puppeteer created small vignettes of animals using only his hands.
Finally, a comedy skit in which a husband was put through a number of penances by his wife to make up for his misbehaviour was extremely funny despite the language barrier. There is a strong tradition of comedy and clowning in Chinese opera and the performers in this skit did an excellent job of conveying the story.
The acrobatics portion of the program consisted of a traditional balancing skill that involved an hour-glass shaped drum, two sticks and a rope. The rope is attached to both sticks and the narrow part of the drum rests on the rope. Amazing feats of balance are involved rolling the drum on the rope and then tossing and catching the drum on the rope.
The entire evening was quite wonderful despite it being delayed by more than an hour due to the attendance of some big party officials at the earlier show.