In China there are between 250 and 300 different forms of opera, of which Beijing Opera (formerly known as Peking Opera) is the most famous. It is recognised by its use of Jing Ju (the extravagant painted faces of the actors) also by the acrobatic nature of the martial scenes and for the dynamic music which is predominantly played on percussion instruments and bowed strings or fiddles.
Almost as famous and perhaps more popular is Cantonese Opera. It places the emphasis more on strong narrative and engaging characters rather than dramatic effects or visual fireworks. Another form, the Kun Opera, is the oldest form still in existence (five hundred years old). It is much more soft and melodious. The main instrumentation is flutes (Dizi) and plucked strings (Pipa). This combination gives a voluptuous quality to the music. However in most Chinese operatic forms, the lead voice is shadowed by the bowed fiddle or ‘erhu’. In Beijing Opera a very high pitched type of fiddle is used. It has a piercing clear tone and this enables the melody to penetrate the cacophony and clamour of the drums and cymbals which are omnipresent throughout Jing Ju productions. This particular kind of fiddle is called ‘Jing Hu’.
When Forgotten Fish Memory Orchestra was asked to prepare a very short performance as part of the Rotterdam Film Festival, they chose to use some aspects of Chinese Opera as a kind of theme , since some of their members had been travelling in China just previous to this.For example they decided to use the painted faces for its strong theatrical effect. Since the concert was part of a film festival , they used film projection as their main source of light on stage. The projected film was an old ‘50s Cantonese Opera piece starring the great Yam Kim Fai in a classic gender bending performance. (It’s interesting that traditionally in Beijing Opera the female roles were played by men and yet in Cantonese Opera one of its biggest stars was a female to male impersonator ).
The Orchestra members opted for white and silver costumes and not the gaudy colours usually associated with the form.This more easily facilitated the lighting effect from the film projector. They also used 8mm projections of short animation films. The main musical piece was a long version of ‘Iron Shoes’ using gongs,cymbals, Chinese oboe,the pipa and singing saw. The painted masks took an extraordinarily long time to apply, about one and a half hours of preparation. They worked very well on stage. It was easy to project a facial expression or an exaggerated emotion to the furthest corners of the room. Of course that’s precisely what these Jing Ju faces were designed for. The Orchestra took this idea much further in one of their later performances ‘The Dome of Shang’.