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A River All Red | Courtesy China National Peking Opera Company
A River All Red | Courtesy China National Peking Opera Company

Take a Cultural Adventure Into the Art of Peking Opera Coming to Sadlers Wells

Picture of Freire Barnes
Freire Barnes
Art & Design Editor
Updated: 2 November 2017

For the first time in Europe, the China National Peking Opera Company will perform A River All Red and The Phoenix Returns Home at Sadlers Wells this October.

The celebrated China National Peking Opera Company will bring the elaborate, extravagant and truly intriguing art of Peking Opera to a European audience with their new interpretations of two classic operas. Experience the preservation of Chinese traditions and values through the masterful art of mime, lavish costumes and daredevil acrobatics.

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A River All Red | Courtesy China National Peking Opera Company

‘It’s a very exciting time for Chinese arts and culture in the UK, as appetite among British audiences continues to flourish,’ said Kevin Zhang, director of Sinolink Productions, which has partnered with the opera company to connect British audiences with Chinese culture.

‘It’s an honour to thrill and inspire audiences with an art form they have rare opportunity to indulge in. This season’s operas mix thrilling acrobatics, superlative vocals and music, with the drama of betrayal and the comedy of mistaken identity. We truly can’t wait to once again enjoy the magical world created by these highly skilled actors, musicians and performers.’

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The Phoenix Returns Home | Courtesy China National Peking Opera Company

Following in the tradition of the two main subjects of Peking opera (‘civil’ and ‘military’), the two performances focus on love and war. The Phoenix Returns Home is one of the company’s most popular works, in which mistaken identity comically plays havoc with the course of true love. And as you might imagine A River All Red focuses on military, telling the story of Yue Fei – one of China’s most celebrated generals – and his loyalty in the face of treachery.

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Character from ‘A River All Red’ | Courtesy China National Peking Opera Company

Peking Opera first emerged in Beijing (formerly Peking) in 1790 during the Qing dynasty. Stemming from numerous regional theatre styles that hadn’t previously been favoured by the nobility of the time, it combines dance, opera and acrobatics. Over the centuries, the opera’s style has been adapted – initially men would have played all the roles until famous actor Mei Lanfang unconventionally started to teach female students at the beginning of the 20th century.

Incorporating a host of different forms of symbolism, it helps if you know some of the crucial rules within each performance, from the simple gesture of walking in a wide circle, which indicates the passing of time, to the performers’ colourfully painted faces – a reflection of specific characteristics to help decipher the baddy from the hero. And it’s common – even for a fluent Chinese speaker – not to understand what is being sung in Mandarin Chinese as the opera utilises various dialects.

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The Phoenix Returns Home | Courtesy China National Peking Opera Company

The art form demands a lot of its performers, with many training from a young age and dedicating their life to perfecting the performance skills required. The two lead performers of the China National Peking Opera Company are examples of the kind of commitment that’s needed. Yu Kuizhi, who is now the vice president and artistic director of the company came from exceptionally humble beginnings and was just 10 years old when he began his tutelage under the great masters.

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Courtesy China National Peking Opera Company

A River All Red and The Phoenix Returns Home by China National Peking Opera Company is at Sadler’s Wells, Rosebery Avenue, London EC1R 4TN between October 21–25. Tickets £15–£65.