It’s noon on Saturday at the Queens Library in Flushing, an hour-and-half before showtime. Many members of the Peking Opera are still rehearsing on stage with the instrumental section, while others put on makeup in the shared dressing room, warm up their vocal chords with soft hums, or grab a quick bite in the hallway.
A tall young man in plaid shirt and dark blue jeans rushes to the dressing room holding a DSLR camera, greeting everyone present. His name is Siqi Tang, 21, and he has just driven six hours from Syracuse to attend this seasonal show at the end of September by New York Chinese Opera Society (NYCOS)’s Youth Troupe.
Tang found the group on the Internet, and has become friends with the members.
Zhe Pan, 21, also shares this experience. He is an international student from Beijing, studying film at Sarah Lawrence University, and has known the group for three years.
“This art form is true to us,” he says of Peking Opera, which incorporates music, singing, dance, acrobatics, and mime. “It’s important that we can watch them on stage. This is a way for us to return home.”
Like Pan, many members of the Youth Troupe are also international students and young professionals living abroad by themselves. Director Bin Ma, 29, established the group in 2012 with like-minded friends who shared his passion for Chinese traditional arts, affiliated with NYCOS.
Now the Youth Troupe includes two dozen members, most of whom have full-time jobs and meet every Sunday for practice. They also offer workshops with professional Chinese opera artists as well as calligraphy, providing anyone interested in traditional Chinese arts a platform to learn and share with each other.
Peking Opera is an especially demanding art form; many professional artists started their careers as toddlers. Even as a hobby, it requires a dedication of time and effort. However, for Bin Ma, an electrical engineer and New York University graduate, his passion for Peking Opera hasn’t diminished one bit through the years.
“I am Chinese, and I’m proud of my Chinese culture,” says Ma. “Peking Opera is a very important part of that, it contains everything – the music, the story, the basic philosophy we believe in. if you want to get to know Chinese culture directly, I suggest you to go to a Chinese Opera show.”
In the September show, the Youth Troupe showcased arias, which are performed without costumes or makeup, and three excerpts from different operas, which require full costumes.
Unlike European opera, a Peking Opera is usually composed of acts from different operas, which vary based on the audience’s or the performers’ preferences.
There are four major categories of characters in Peking Opera: Sheng (male roles), Dan (female roles), Jing (painted face male roles) and Chou (comedy roles). Performers usually study one or multiple roles in the same category.
Bin Ma plays Lao Sheng, meaning “older gentleman,” and usually wears a black or white beard.
He stars in “Selling the Horse” as Qin Qiong, a desperate policeman who can’t return home after one of his escorted prisoners die of thirst. When the innkeeper bothers him constantly to pay up, he decides to sell his beloved horse to a local tycoon.
However, Qin forgets to negotiate the price, and when the tycoon has to leave for a family emergency, he takes the horse without paying. Qin then sells his weapon, his last possession, but luckily, two kind strangers help him retrieve the paperwork he needs and get him home.
Leping Xu, 25, co-stars in this comedy as the local tycoon. He studied financial engineering at Columbia University, and currently works as a data analyst for a consulting firm. Xu performs a variety of roles.
“For serious learning, like on stage, I just started after I arrived in New York, which was about three years ago,” Xu says humbly. “As you can see, I’m still very bad.” He laughs. His face is covered in sweat and smudged paint, and he sports a thick, bright red fake beard.
Xu developed his interest in traditional art as a child. Born and raised in Tianjin, he says that it was an excellent environment for traditional art. “It makes it easier that I used to watch a lot of opera performances,” says Xu. “But I’m still very much a beginner.”
The highlight of the show is “Farewell My Concubine,” a well-known act in Peking Opera that requires advanced skills in singing, acting, and choreography as the main character, Ji Yu, delivers the famous “Sword Dance.”
The scene is set after the collapse of the Qin Dynasty, when only the Han and Chu armies remain. The Chu army is surrounded, and the Han army sings Chu folk songs to destroy the fighting spirit of the Chu soldiers and make them homesick.
Foreseeing their failure and death, the Chu King’s concubine, Ji Yu, dances the swords one last time for her king. And with a long toast, she slits her throat with his sword.
The historical maestro of the act is Lanfang Mei, who established the “School of Mei” as a distinguished style in the category of female roles called “Qing Yi” (main female role).
BoHan Ye, 29, studies the Mei style and has learned from Baojiu Mei, who was Master Mei’s youngest son. Ye is a Ph.D. candidate in economics at the University of Arizona, and an alumna of Tsinghua University.
Her performance at the showcase brought the audience to its feet, with many Peking Opera fans waiting in line for photographs after the show.
“Once upon a time, I watched Peking Opera on TV and I found it so fascinating, so I made up my mind to study it since I was 14 years old,” says Ye. “It’s more than a hobby to me. It is part of my life.”
Although Peking Opera brings many members of the Youth Troupe closer to home, Leping Xu is content living abroad, he says. “New York is a mixture of everything, so you can always find something like home here.”
More information about New York Chinese Opera Society can be found here.