红灯记 "The Legend of the Red Lantern" is one of the 8 model pieces of China's Cultural Revolution, and perhaps one of the most famous; its songs are still sung in Chinese households and its images have traveled the world and remain as icons of the Maoist cultural revolution itself. (1)
As part of the events that commemorated in 2009 the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China, dozens of operas that had to do with the history of this last stage of Chinese government were staged, so the operas of the Cultural Revolution could not be absent. For me it was a real opportunity to compare this productions with those who I had seen the previous 4 years, the so-called traditional operas, as well as to increase my experience as a spectator to several films and ballets I have seen in relation to the 1960's and 1970 in China .
Regardless of the topic (the emergence of a common Chinese communist revolutionary as heir to the struggles of parents), the play is a clear example of the progress (or changes) that occurred in the structure of the iron tradition of Peking Opera until the moment of its creation.
In this post I would like to simply present briefly those changes and characteristic elements that the Chinese consider essential in "The Legend of the Red Lantern" and try to exemplify them with some scenes that I could record during the performance of July 11th 2009 at the Chang'An Theatre:
- The absorption of realism on stage and in the structure of the story. First, the use of a contemporary history of China in the 1960s, referring to the past (just 20 years ago), the time of the Japanese invasion in the 1940s, to explain the existence of the revolutionary and nationalist spirit of the sons of the new republic in China in the 1960s. Costumes, makeup, scenography, everything had to be transformed; that was a huge change in the eyes of the Chinese, as they had always seen their operas with an elaborate traditional coding in both makeup and costumes (2), while the scenography was almost nonexistent. A change that somehow had taken place in the cinema and that, when operas were transported to film, they suffered a "realist" transformation, but not yet in the case of a theatrical scene.
In the following video, the main character Li Yuhua enters a Restaurant where noodles are prepared; the guests act in a way similar to reality, there are no exchanges in declamation form among themselves, nor exagerated ways to communicate, all of them do their actions in a realistic style, listening, eating, or serving food and taking orders, as in the case of the woman. It reminds me common theatrical productions in Russian socialist realist theater.
- Keeping the use of acrobatics as a theatrical way to express a battle on stage and the use of new weapons (rifles, pistols, etc) and uniforms (no large and heavy costumes, nor high heels) also prompted a transformation in acrobatic choreography: some had much more action and, in my opinion, in the case of this play, some of the best I've seen.
- There is a change that is difficult to show: the use of contemporary music. Now using a large orchestra (in this performance the orchestral parts were prerecorded, while a smaller group also played, using traditional Chinese instruments and modern ones). The video I've published shows a small moment when the orchestra was playing in that performance of July 11th at the Chang'An Theatre; you will see that it is not the traditional classical Peking Opera orchestra, and on the other hand you will hear there is an instrumental music that they are not playing, because the parts of the large orchestra were pre-recorded. That would be unthinkable in any previous traditional opera.
- The use of different accessories in the costumes. For example, in the case of this opera, more than evolved, they were transformed. While in traditional opera heroes wear "water sleeves" (extensions of the sleeves on their costumes, which allow making figures, movements and other actions with them), in this case the main character, Li Yuhua, without that kind of sleeves due to his realistic costume, handles the chains that bind him in what I consider a very interesting transposition. (3)
- The end with a dance or ballet, as in many traditional operas, is maintained, but obviously all the modernization of the objects and set design gives the possibility of a huge new projection covered of Chinese communist nationalism and, ultimately, show the opera as what it was, a product of propaganda of the highest artistic level. That night after the final ballet, the ballet of the victory, the audience was in an apotheosis and full of strength and joy; watching at their faces I thought I could see the memory of years of famine, of international isolation, of political fear and of the only sustenance of life and strength that theatre gave them: communist revolutionary nationalism .
红灯记 "The Legend of the Red Lantern" at times seems naive and of dubious quality in its acting style, but within the context of its creation and use during the years of the Chinese Cultural Revolution it is a real gem and, from my my point of view, one of the clearest examples of a successful attempt to break with a tradition that had turned a performing expression into an anthropological oddity.
(1) A Chinese opera, in contrast to Western opera, is never watched just for the singing or for the music (the score), but for the staging it entails. The stagings of a Peking opera vary little between, when you watch one today you are virtually watching the same production with which it premiered. Thus the iconic images of the model operas of the Cultural Revolution.
(2) Even with some attempts at realist modernism in the 1920's and 1930's, which were viewed as eccentric or snob actions.
(3) You can see an example of the movement of water sleeves on a video of the most famous Kunqu Opera, Mudanting: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2bl6xjCXWsM