Photo courtesy of Mount Holyoke College
Chinese Yue Opera stars Qi Tao (L) and Jun’An Wang (R) performed scenes at Mount Holyoke last week.
BY RENN ELKINS ’20 AND HEALY MILLER ’19
Mount Holyoke’s Rooke Theatre hosted a performance of Chinese Yue Opera scenes featuring award-winning actors Jun’an Wang and Qi Tao on Friday, Oct. 26. Wang and Tao flew in from China specially for this event and performed three scenes from the classic operas “Liu Yi Delivers a Letter for the Dragon King’s Daughter,” and “Searching for and Probing the Wife,” featuring full costume, makeup and choreography. Professor Ying Wang’s Asian Studies class, “Androgyny and Gender Negotiation in Contemporary Chinese Women’s Theater,” assisted in planning and putting on the event. Students from the course worked as translators, stage crew and presenters, providing the audience with cultural, literary and historical contexts for each of the three excerpts.
Yue Opera, the second most popular opera genre in China today, originated in the early 20th century and is notable for its all-female casting. Actresses are trained, typically from a very young age, to perform one of a variety of specialized role types, which are distinguished by the gender, age, class and mannerisms of the characters they portray. Of the two performers visiting Mount Holyoke, Jun’an Wang specializes in young male lead roles, while Qi Tao is trained as a female lead. Both Wang and Tao participated in a Q&A panel on Wednesday the 24th, during which they answered a series of questions posed by Mount Holyoke students. Over the course of the session, the actresses emphasized the hard work, dedication and passion necessary to succeed as a Yue Opera performer. Wang also mentioned her joy seeing younger generations’ interest in this century-old genre of performance. At the same time, both actresses expressed their worry for the future of Yue Opera, since fewer and fewer young Chinese women are choosing to undergo the rigorous training necessary to become a Yue performer.
Whatever the future of the genre, it was successfully received at Mount Holyoke and Rooke Theatre was nearly sold out. As an elaborate art form, a slice of cultural history and a challenge to heteronormative and gender-conforming Western theatre, Yue Opera holds a powerful allure for students in many areas of study.
“It was a huge privilege to have [Wang and Tao] here firsthand,” said Katie Simpson ’21. “That might be the only time I’ll ever have an opportunity like that. It was just […] excellent. Just really excellent.” After the performance many clamored to get on stage, hoping to take a photo with the talented opera artists. Theater Department Chair Sally Sutherland hung back, content to take photos of the general excitement. Sutherland was thrilled that the opera event had gone so well, despite minor technical difficulties. “I’d never seen Yue Opera before,” she said. “I had no idea what to expect going in, but it was so interesting! It’s made me far more interested in Yue Opera than I ever was before — I’d go again in a heartbeat.”