Same story, different pitch
"Intricate adn exquisite" ... Wei Chunrong as Du Liniang in The Peony Pavilion.
To the untrained ear, the high-pitched voices in Chinese opera can sound like tomcats fighting in a back alley, or cars screeching to a halt.
The director of the Sydney Festival, Lieven Bertels, agrees the singing in
The Peony Pavilion, one of China's most famous operas, is a far cry from the soaring arias usually heard in the Sydney Opera House.
Lifelong art ... Shao Zheng as Liu Mengmei.
''From a distance, very often these roles you would feel have a very immature sound, like children,'' he says. ''That's the sort of stylistic thing developed over the years.''
Add to that the stamina required to endure an uncut performance of the opera, which can take more than 22 hours, and it would appear Bertels made a rather brave decision to invite the Northern Kunqu Opera Theatre to perform two traditional Chinese operas at this year's Sydney Festival.
But Bertels says kunqu opera is one of the great art forms of Asia - and so does UNESCO, which lists kunqu as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. ''It's one of the most refined forms of the traditional performing arts,'' Bertels says.
This will be the first time Sydney Festival audiences have the opportunity to experience kunqu, so Spectrum asked the experts for a few tips for our Bluffer's Guide to Chinese Opera.
What's going on?
Operagoers worried about watching a marathon sung in Mandarin can breathe easy. These productions of the The Peony Pavilion and The Jade Hairpin have been pared back to about 2½ hours and will be performed with English surtitles.
And both operas tell straightforward stories of love battling adversity in the form of class, failed exams and the lord of the underworld.
''What's great about kunqu opera is the stories are very easy to understand,'' Bertels says. ''Even if the cultural code is somewhat alien to Western audiences, the stories are universal.''
Both works belong to the best of the kunqu opera tradition, says Dr Joanna Lee, a musicologist and cultural adviser who worked on the Broadway production of the comedy Chinglish. ''Their stature in the kunqu repertoire is like La Boheme or La Traviata,'' she says. ''While The Peony Pavilion is a classic romance of lovers united across the divide of life and death, The Jade Hairpin is a romantic comedy about two young people meeting and courting.''
Lee suggests boning up on Yuan and Ming dynasty history and moral codes. Or you could watch a few Chinese soap operas, Bertels says.
It's all in the details
There were no theatres or opera houses in China when The Peony Pavilion was written in 1598, so the drama, which takes place in an imaginary garden, was originally staged in a real one, Academy Award-winning composer
Tan Dun told US National Public Radio in November when his production of the romantic opera opened at New York's Metropolitan Museum.
The festival shows will be staged in the Opera House's 544-seat Drama Theatre rather than the cavernous Joan Sutherland Theatre, which seats just over 1500 people.
''The setting is very intimate,'' Lee says, ''and really, please pay attention to every movement - foot, hand, waist, neck, head, eyes - of the actors.
''Kunqu actors receive training from an early age. They are hand-picked to attend arts schools at age 11, and it's a lifelong art with lifelong training.''
The award-winning singer and actor Wei Chunrong, who performs in both shows, says the voice and movement skills required of her take a long time to master.
''The characters and plots in kunqu opera are intricate and exquisitely realised,'' she says, speaking through an interpreter.
''I think the most difficult aspect is to play out the most exquisite and subtle emotions of characters through your performance, and let the audience understand the interpretation of the characters's emotions.''
What's different from Western opera?
Wei describes kunqu as an ''impressionistic art'' in which the props are used for creating effects and the performance on stage is stylised.
''Dancing comes together with singing in kunqu - the dancing and singing together display the characters' emotions,'' she says.
Lee says Chinese opera has always been abstract. ''Chairs and tables are often the only movable props on stage,'' she says. ''Be prepared to understand a lot of abstract ideas - how actors open and close doors, they mime the action, including pretending to cross a threshold - and how they enter and exit from the stage.''
A chase scene in The Jade Hairpin provides an example, with people jumping from one boat to another, Lee says. ''The dipping and rising of the actors … re-creates a boat bopping up and down.''
The simple sets are the essence of Chinese opera, says the general manager of the Confucius Institute at the University of Sydney, Xing Jin.
''You have to use your imagination to produce the scene in your brain yourself,'' she says.
Bertels says Chinese opera lacks the big gestures of romantic opera, which may be a relief to some.
''It's not like someone taking 25 minutes to die with their arms in the air like a Verdi opera,'' she says. ''It's about the finesse of it all.''
All dressed up with somewhere to go
The seamstresses at Opera Australia are no slouches when it comes to making corsets and corsages, petticoats and pantaloons. Neither are the make-up artists responsible for the buckets of blood spilt in recent productions of Salome and Lucia de Lammermoor.
Chinese operas have similar demands when it comes to ornate costumes and elaborate make-up.
''I think the beauty of Chinese traditional opera costumes will first catch the audience's eyes,'' Wei says. ''It'll be the first impression they get.''
When it comes to make-up, there are strict rules about how a clownish figure should look (a white patch on the nose), how a young maiden should look and how a scholar should look, Lee says. ''Observe these subtle differences and you'll have a great time.''
Where's the orchestra?
You won't see scores of musicians lurking in a pit beneath the stage in Chinese opera. Expect instead a small ensemble of a dozen or so musicians who share the stage with the performers, Bertels says.
Chinese opera lacks the mass of sound a large group of musicians can produce. ''Don't expect lush orchestral harmonies, but delicate Chinese instrumental colours of mostly melodic instruments,'' Lee says.
Xing agrees audiences will have a new experience. ''The music is very different - it's modular, like building blocks.''
And don't be surprised if you hear similar music in both The Peony Pavilion and The Jade Hairpin.
Xing says the musicians ''use sets of music which have routines in accordance to different scenes''.
What about the singing?
Xing says kunqu is best enjoyed with an open mind and the patience to sit through an entire production.
''A lot of Western audiences say they don't like Chinese opera because they don't like its high pitch,'' she says.
''But they've never watched or listened to a whole Chinese opera performance. It can also be very low and soft depending on the characters. It really varies.''
Lee says kunqu is the most ''easy on the ear'' of Chinese operas. ''I'm sure the sound engineers will do very well with the acoustic environment.''
The Peony Pavilion is at the Opera House on January 24 and 26. The Jade Hairpin is on January 25 and 26.