Ganga! Predicament and Opportunity for Innovating Chinese Opera in the New Millennium
Daphne Lei, University of California, Irvine
On Monday 26 September 2011 Daphne Lei delivered a talk at the Centre for Creative Collaboration, Acton Street, London. Daphne began her talk by interpreting the term ganga as awkward, embarrassing, being a misfit or to mean ‘bu zheng ye’/‘not straight’. In short, to be ganga is to be in a state that one has no choice but to deal with. Feelings of humiliation, desperation, mortification and acts of blushing are all relevant to ganga.
Performing classics from the Chinese opera repertoire is a ganga situation. Chinese opera is considered too slow and boring to be of interest to younger generations. Turning specifically to Chinese opera in Taiwan, Daphne highlighted how only a few old people were interested in performances in the late 1980s, and this was despite the quality of the performer’s technique. A lack of funding in the 1990s saw less and less troupes, eventually leading to only theatre troupe, and one training school.
For performers, this seems an unbearable situation. Is Chinese opera in the final death throes or does it mark a rite of passage, a time to make a change?
Daphne then proceeded to analyse specific examples of Chinese opera that have introduced innovation into performances in Taiwan and Hong Kong, in order to revive the form.
There is a well-known Jingju play called The Pavilion of the Royal Tablet (Yubei ting), made famous by Mei Lanfang. The story surrounds Meng Yuehua who is caught in a rainstorm. She spends the night in a pavilion in order to shelter from the rain, but meets a man there, who is also sheltering from the rain. The two are forced to spend the night together, though nothing happens between them. After returning home, Meng Yuehua’s husband finds out and banishes her. After much complication, the husband finally realises the fidelity of his wife, and he welcomes her back.
When the performer Wang An-ch’i taught this classic to her students, they mocked it for its out of date gender politics. Wang then set about making it relevant by re-writing the play. Re-titled Wang Youdao Divorces his Wife (Wang Youdao xiuqi) it was performed in 2004 in Taiwan. In this version, the pavilion is personified and becomes a character played by a clown actor. Role-types were made more complicated by splitting the Meng Yuehua into two roles – a coquettish female (huadan) and virtuous woman (qingyi) and having dialogue between them, the play featured a psychological struggle which culminated in a debate between the two Meng Yuehua characters as she spent the night in the pavilion with the stranger. The play was also under 2 hours in duration, making it more palatable to contemporary audiences.
Another play Three Persons, Two Lamps (Sange ren’er liangzhandeng) was conceived by a student of Wang An-Ch’i and was a lesbian story, first performed in 2005. It had slower movements, but was performed to Japanese contemporary pop music.
The Golden Cangue (Jinsuo ji) was performed in 2006 and had a filmic style. Changes in staging made the play appear more naturalistic, with characters playing Mahjong around a table. Here, actors sat fully on their chairs (rather than perching on them like they do in traditional performances) and around all four sides of the table.
Despite these innovations, and some very good plays, the ganga situation continues in Taiwan. The problem is largely because of a lack of indigenous actors, especially male ones. Most often, actors are flown in from the Chinese mainland to enable performances to take place.
Yet there is not a dearth of talent in Taiwan. In the play Meng Xiaodong , Wei Hai-ming, the top Taiwan Jingju performer, played Meng Xiaodong, the sometime wife of Mei Lanfang. Wei performed the male dan voice of the Mei Lanfang school of Jingju, the female old voice of the Yu school of Jingju (in which Mei Lanfang’s wife was trained), and non-Jingju female voice. Accompanied by the National Symphony Orchestra, the performance was billed as a ‘Jingju musical’.
In 2011, a performance in Hong Kong merged Jingju with rock and roll. The performance featured 14 young actors, all from mainland China: Hong Kong has no fully trained Jingju actors. The aesthetics for the production were derived from anime and manga comics, not Jingju.
Even in the diaspora, ganga moments abound. In Downing, CA, USA in 2010, there was a performance of Peony Pavilion. A lack of promotion meant empty theatres, with one of the actresses managing ticket sales by herself. Those that did attend were impatient. “Can we go now? I’m so bored!”. Daphne even tried to get her own students to go by incorporating it her into classes, but only a few went. As a result, Daphne had to explain the relevance of Kunqu and why it had become a UNESCO protected art to her students!
Daphne concluded by suggesting that the situation of ganga was a good place to begin to reassess traditional arts. It also offers a period of reflection for the diaspora. The real impact of placing Kunqu, Yueju and Jingju under the protection of UNESCO remains to be seen.
A series of questions followed. The first, asked by Margaret ‘Jiggs’ Coldiron (East 15) suggested that Jingju seems to be open to innovation whereas a form such as Japanese noh has a greater air of ‘museumification’, where being authentic and traditional is stressed. Daphne suggested that one of the problems facing Chinese opera was training, where actors simply do not have the level of skills needed to be able to sustain Chinese opera. Jingju exercise routines may be a part of summer camp in Hong Kong, but this will not sustain the genre.
Shzree Tan (Royal Holloway) suggested that translating ganga was also about ‘loss of face’. How culturally specific is ganga? How translatable is it? Do performers understand this ganga situation? Daphne responded by suggesting that there was a disconnection between performers and audience. They do not want to admit it, or choose not admit it. If they did, it might make innovation easier.
Jonah Salz asked how different types of innovation were being categorised. Are they all in the Jingju frame, or are they now something else? Daphne suggested that Three Persons, Two Lamps was certainly in the Jingju frame, whilst others used Jingju actors or costumes. These performances still use Jingju musical structures or traditional performance styles.
Mark Hamilton (Regent’s College) asked about the role of the state and UNESCO in these performances. Are troupes expected to preserve as well as innovate? Daphne suggested that some projects might preserve, whilst others might innovate. The Young Lover’s Editions of some Kunqu plays might do both at the same time. Previously, Kunqu performers may only have performed the same plays, perhaps to tourists, or out in the countryside. Could people remain interested in a static repertoire? During the Cultural Revolution, there were very few plays – how long can an audience remain interested? It was the young people that went to see them. This is the audience that must be cultivated now.
Kim Hunter Gordon (PhD student, University of Reading) suggested that ganga was integral to the play The Pavilion of the Royal Tablet and that the audience needed to feel this to make the play work. Rapport with the ganga of the character is paramount. Do these innovations take away from that rapport? Daphne responded by suggesting that young audiences don’t feel ganga for the characters. They are not sufficiently interested in opera to care. The gangga of the situation is still played out in the new version of the play, just to a lesser extent.
(Summary by Ashley Thorpe)
Daphne Lei is associate professor in Drama, at the University of California, Irvine. Her intellectual interest and expertise include intercultural theatre, Asian theatre, Chinese opera, Asian American theatre, and diasporic and postcolonial studies. She is author of Operatic China: Staging Chinese Identity Across the Pacific (Palgrave, 2006) and Alternative Chinese Opera in the Age of Globalization: Performing Zero (Palgrave, 2011). She is also the director of Multicultural Spring, a program that intends to diversify performing arts and foster alternative learning in academia.