Cradle of Peking Opera: Playhouse at the Summer Palace2016-07-27 16:24:48Share:
The playhouse in Summer Palace's Dehe Palace is one of the three survival ancient playhouses in China. The three-story playhouse is 21 metres in height, higher than Changyin Playhouse in the Forbidden City and Qingyin Playhouse in Chengde Summer Retreat. The ground stage is 17 metres broad. Channels in the ceilings and floors make the stages mutually accessible.
The machinery in the attic facilitates mystical plays that may require extraordinary properties and stage effect. The stage effect can be very baroque, with snow flakes falling from the ceilings and water sprouting from under the floor.
Huge vats are buried under the ground stage, which not only provide water for the desired effect on stage but contribute to the sound resonation as the actors talk and sing. The empress was a Peking Opera lover and she demanded that her ministers share her hobby. It was supposed to be a special honor to be allowed to watch plays with her majesty and only a few got it. However those who were considered fortunate enough to get the honor didn’t always seem to enjoy it.
It was a long, tedious duty, which had to be served in patience and self control. Smoking was forbidden when her majesty was watching plays. The ministers addicted to opium had to make do without the drug and wait till the play was over.
As a result the ministers who were so honored to be treated with a show would either pretend to be ill and ask for leave or send their subordinates instead. But the empress was a great Peking Opera critic and she contributed profoundly to the development and prevalence of this performing art.
Famous artists such as Tan Xinpei, Yang Xiaolou, Wang Yaoqing, Jin Xiushan and Gongyunfu all served in the Summer palace. Many provincial theatrical companies were summoned too.
In the 13 years from the 21st year of Emperor Guangxu when the playhouse was completed till the empress dowager died in the 34th year of Emperor Guangxu she watched over 300 performances in the Dehe Palace and she didn’t stop watching Peking Opera until the month before her death.
The empress dowager was in the habit of checking the performance with the play script which she never watched a play without holding in hand. She paid attention to the costume, singing and dialogue, music accompaniment, martial art and facial expression and the accuracy of pronunciation. A slight error would lead this unsparing critic to stop the performance for instruction until the error was corrected.
And the actors all did their best, seeing to it that they presented the perfect show to patroness. These forerunners gradually developed Peking Opera into an advanced and popular performing art.
The standardization of the performance and the play script, the improvement by generations of Peking Opera masters and the refinement by literate audience in the imperial court contributed to the maturity of Beijing Opera.
And, very unexpectedly, the playhouse in the summer Palace became the cradle of Beijing Opera.
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