cover image Chinese Opera: Images and Stories

Chinese Opera: Images and Stories

Siu Wang-Ngai. University of Washington Press, $50 (160pp) ISBN 978-0-295-97610-5

In 1981, Hong Kong photographer Siu attended a performance of a Cantonese opera, The Jade Bracelet, and took a few pictures. That series developed in 1985 into a fellowship from the Royal Photographic Society and now, 30,000 pictures later, into this book. The opera is a perfect photographic subject; actors in intricate costumes, hairstyles and makeup strike stylized poses against a largely empty backdrop-- patterns of brilliant colors against black. Lovrick, who teaches Chinese performing arts in Toronto and has himself acted in Chinese opera, offers a brief introduction to the art form. The main point of this book is Siu's 193 photographs, though Lovrick makes a worthy attempt at covering the long history, the complex of regional styles, the levels of different character types and decoding the meanings behind the abstractions (e.g. white face paint indicates duplicity; a chair placed atop a table can signify a mountain). The bulk of the book is made up of summaries of more than 50 different operas accompanied by photographs of one or more performances. Those who enjoyed Lilian Lee's Farewell My Concubine or Chen Kaige's film of the same name, know that Chinese opera was quashed during the Cultural Revolution. Though it made a comeback, this theatrical form was lost on an entire generation, many of whom now see it only as an artifact. ""The danger,"" Lovrick points out, ""is that classical opera is not so much fostered as preserved, a very different thing."" This book helps show the vitality of the form. (Aug.)