Chinese opera performer comes to Pitt

By Shae' Felicien

Xiao Xiangping does his best performances in women’s clothing.

Last night, however, he kept… Xiao Xiangping does his best performances in women’s clothing.

Last night, however, he kept it simple in an all-black ensemble.

Xiao, who performed at the Graduate School of Public Health last night, is most renowned in China for his work performing Kun opera as a woman.

“If a man is going to impersonate a woman, it is considered an improved art,” Xiao said. “It is more difficult because he is representing a man’s ideal woman. You get more famous that way.”

The Chinese Kun opera star and Danny Yung, an intercultural theater specialist, held a lecture about Chinese performance art. The Asian Studies Center and the ethnomusicology program of the Department of Music sponsored the event.

The lecture featured a selection of Yung’s theatrical works and a live solo demonstration of Kun opera by Xiao.

Yung, who titled the lecture “Journey to the West — Tears of Barren Hill,” dedicated his work to Cheng Yanqui, whose life works and journeys to a Hitler-ruled Germany inspired Yung to reinterpret Yanqui’s original operas decades later.

Xiao, clad in loose-fitted clothing, danced barefoot on the austere stage. With calculated arm gestures, he fluttered a fan rhythmically to the sound of his voice, which easily reached the 22 people in the audience. He sang with no accompaniment, and the backdrop to his performance was a projector screen that displayed English subtitles to the aria.

Kun opera is an ancient Chinese opera dating back 600 years which combines singing, dancing and gesture to tell a story through costuming and rhythmic movements.

Xiao, a resident performer of the Kunqu Opera Museum of China, has studied opera since he was 13.

“The biggest difference between Kun opera and Western drama is that Western drama can be very realistic in terms of the expressions and the techniques, but Kun opera is more abstract. It does not involve a lot of concrete setting, and the techniques are very abstract,” Xiao said with the aid of his translator.

The simplicity of Xiao’s performance last night appealed to Asian studies scholars.

“I do part of my research on Chinese opera, and I’ve watched lots and lots of Chinese opera. This guy is one of the best people that I’ve ever seen,” said Katherine Carlitz, assistant director of Pitt’s Asian Studies Center and organizer for the event.

Xiao performed a scaled-down demonstration of Kun opera for a small crowd Tuesday at a special theater workshop in the Stephen Foster Memorial building.

Normal attire for Xiao’s performance dictates elaborate costumes, detailed makeup and intricate head pieces, but at the workshop he focused on giving audience members a more hands-on display of Kun opera.

Xiao demonstrated the vocal techniques in both falsetto and actual voice, encouraging interaction with a sing-along exercise. Later in the workshop, Xiao brought the audience on stage to teach them a skit.

One pair of students from the University of Akron in Ohio had driven two hours to attend the workshop despite their 7 a.m. classes on Wednesday.

“My friend from China — she’s an exchange student from Beijing — let me know that there was a workshop today and she didn’t want to come alone, so I came with her,” said Grace Kontor, a sophomore at Akron. “I’m always interested in theater and anything international. My major is international business so I enjoy being around different cultures.”

Carlitz, who attended the workshop, said that the small event was for people who wanted to get on stage and experience the performance, but the lecture would remain the “big audience event.”

The lecture was the Asian Studies Center’s first event since it brought an entire Chinese opera troupe to Pitt to perform Peony Pavilion in 2008.