by Ernie Diaz
There aren’t a whole lot of expats who make a regular thing out of Beijing Opera. It’s usually a tourist’s duty to attend one, to ensure an authentically Chinese cultural experience. This lack of enthusiasm is usually explained away as a language or cultural barrier, although truth to tell, it’s hard to find many Chinese of the last few generations who admit to being fans.
However lamentable its current state, Beijing Opera has produced many stars who live on in the Chinese collective conscience. Fifty years from now, Sid Vicious will be better remembered than his tunes, thanks largely to Sid and Nancy. Similarly, Chen Kaige’s new movie Mei Lanfang will ensure the legacy of its eponymous subject for a few more generations, even if no one can sing along to The Peony Pavilion. If that seems an optimistic prediction, remember that this is the same Chen Kaige who directed Farewell My Concubine, another movie about a Peking Opera star.
Externally, Mei Lanfang’s story parallels those of the leads in Farewell My Concubine, Cheng Dieyi and Duan Xiaolou. Born in 1894 and launched onstage at the tender age of ten, Mei Lanfang quickly won a reputation as a consummate opera performer. Not only was he pretty and graceful as a girl, remaining so throughout his fifty-year career, he also displayed a preternatural command of the vocal and physical nuances that distinguish a master of the dan,or female role.
Cheng Dieyi, the fictional star of Farewell My Concubine, possessed similar talent. But what intrigues most foreign fans of the film aren’t the glimpses of Opera so much as the unfolding of China’s modern history. Like Cheng, Mei Lanfang lived through it all, likewise removed from the more severe consequences of the Qing Dynasty breakup and subsequent Warlord Period by virtue of his star status.
In fact, as China’s preeminent Opera star, Mei Lanfang ventured on international tours to promote the art form. During the 1920s, the China Ministry of Foreign Affairs often arranged for visiting dignitaries to attend private performances starring Mei. Although it may be hard to believe, given the current level of enthusiasm, it became de rigueur for VIP visitors to attend his private shows. Whether this was due to Mei’s overwhelming charisma and talent, or the long-lost ability to sit and concentrate on something unfamiliar, we’ll never know.
We do know that interest was sufficient to raise funding for an international tour. This is where a touching aspect of Mei’s persona, and the culture from which it sprang, comes into play. Unlike say, the Rolling Stones, who brought their act to China with the onus on the audience to dig it, Mei Lanfang undertook an exhaustive study of foreign tastes and preferences in order to prepare a repertoire most likely to gratify audiences completely unfamiliar with Beijing Opera. He went so far as to pare down famous but drawn-out scenes into brief vignettes so that non-Chinese viewers wouldn’t feel fatigued. If only symphonies performing Wagner had the same compassion.
His 1930 American tour was counted a huge success. It’s doubtful audiences in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles or Honolulu rushed the stage or flicked their bics for an extra high-pitched aria, but contemporaneous reports of Mei’s performances tell of warm receptions and sincere ovations. He was feted in LA by Hollywood legends such as Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin. Over the years and other international tours, he befriended the likes of Bertolt Brecht, Bernard Shaw, and Maxim Gorky.
Actually, it’s this kind of success that spells trouble for Chen Kaige’s new film, at least in terms of it being compared favorably to Farewell My Concubine. Mei Lanfang was simply too loved, too humble, and too non-homosexual to stir up the kind of drama that Cheng Dieyi did. Besides the rich and detailed look at China in its darkest days, Farewell compels with its ongoing unorthodox love triangle. As for Mei Lanfang’s dark days, he did suffer a period of unemployment after refusing to perform for occupying Japanese forces.
But unlike the troubled Cheng Dieyi, Mei suffered no lasting tarnish to his stardom. The former sinks into obscurity after the founding of the PRC, and outright humiliation during the Cultural Revolution. Mei, on the other hand, served as director of the China Beijing Opera Theater after 1949, and was a vice-chairman of the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles. He died of a heart attack in 1961, and thus didn’t live to see his work officially declared decadent, and his house smashed and looted by Red Guards.
Regarding Mei’s love life, Chen Kaige does have material to work with, in that the star divided his attentions between a wife and mistress. Hardly groundbreaking, especially for a Chinese man of means, and not nearly as taboo as Cheng’s unsuccessfully-closeted desires. Fortunately for Beijing Opera, but unfortunately for Chen Kaige, Mei Lanfang was that rarest of entities, a well-adjusted superstar.
See the trailer for Mei Lanfang here.
Check out his pretty hand gestures here.