The first opera I ever saw was Nixon in China, part of the Metropolitan Opera’s 2010-11 season, which was broadcast via satellite by NCM Fathom to Edwards Valencia 12 in Valencia, California, one theater of many receiving the broadcast at the same time, where my sister and I were on a Saturday morning in February in 2011. It was easy to understand. It was all in English. In fact, I didn’t even care at first that it was an opera. Coming out of another movie at the same movie theater a few months prior and seeing the poster for the Met’s season, I looked at the titles, saw Nixon in China, and my endless love of presidential history made me want to buy tickets right then and there, but I had to wait until it was closer to the performance date.
I never imagined someone taking an important historical event in a president’s administration and turning it into a full-fledged opera. But there it was by the efforts of composer John Adams and director Peter Sellars, who became one of my heroes during the interview segments during intermission with his Chia Pet-like hair and his enthusiasm for the material and life in general. Art is Sellars’ oxygen, and the life he brought to this production was astonishing, particularly Act III, my favorite, in which the Nixons talk of their past lives at the same time the elderly Mao Tse-tung and his formidable wife, Chiang Ch’ing, are doing the same, acknowledging in a way the day that will come when their political power ends and the world continues on. Who will know them then? Will their part in history even be acknowledged? As Mao sings at the end, “How much of what we did was good?”
I was totally transfixed, realizing how lucky I was to be introduced to opera like this, with subject matter that always interests me. Opera is supposed to sweep you up and you have to let it do that to you. No questions. No objections. Bask in the sun of opera and let it flood every part of your being. Be open to exploration of story, of feelings, of how all of it comes across in voice, in action, in an artform that few care to know about because it seems intimidating. After all, isn’t it for rich people of higher social classes and not the rest of us?
I originally thought so, and when I started reading about the history of opera, I was worried about so much that I didn’t know. There’s German opera, and Italian opera, and I don’t think I could sit in a theater listening to Italian opera. I don’t know the words because I don’t know the language. But opera seems to be all about emotion in its most intense variations. Would that be enough to understand what’s going on? I thought that there’s so much to know, and there is, but I also understood in my brief studies that I plan to resume in the coming months that you just have to see what interests you and go into it without fear of not understanding everything right away and therefore falling further behind. I want to know more opera than just Nixon in China, although I wish the Metropolitan Opera would release it on DVD so I can watch it again instead of the mere clips that are still on YouTube. I can’t sit through a straight performance by a symphony, the performers at their instruments with such focus and understanding of the piece. Unless it’s Gershwin or Schubert that lets me wander around in my imagination while the orchestra plays, I get bored easily. Opera combines the music with usually epic stories that could certainly keep me engaged. And now I’ve learned of another type of opera: Peking Opera. Instead of being intimidated as I was before, I just let myself go into it without insecurity. And I’ve discovered a story that’s not only about the drive to create lasting art, but of performing that art in two different countries and soon deciding to live in that second country for more opportunities than the native country.
Master Qi and the Monkey King is that story, about Qi Shu Fang, who was revered throughout China for her lead role in a feature film version of the Peking Opera Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, which presented a strong woman rather than the women with bound feet, “holding their hands like lotus flowers,” as Master Qi observes was the norm in past operas. She trained long and hard for years, as did her husband, Ding Mei-kui, in separate skills before they met, and when they got closer when she went on tour in operas and wanted him as her director.
They decided to move to the United States in the late 1980s, after introducing Americans to Peking Opera, and continue to show audiences what Peking Opera is, the most fun segments of this documentary being when an audience of schoolchildren cheer at every skilled stunt. Filmmaker Alan Govenar quietly observes everything, never getting too close to the actors on stage, just watching like the kids watch, like the later audience at the Jack H. Skirball Center for the Performing Arts in New York City watches: In awe and admiration of everything it takes for these performances, from the makeup to the stunts to the music, which is dictated by the drum that Master Qi and Ding Mei-kui’s adoptive son plays as the conductor of the opera. The drum also is used for the cues that the actors come in on, and their movements. It’s as if you’re there yourself, watching the opera, the rehearsals, following the costumed actors as they walk quickly to the stage, finding out what jobs certain actors have. It’s Govenar’s journey, certainly, be he frames it as if it’s our own curiosity at work, which it is if you want to know more about Peking Opera.
Govenar also captures the life of the artist, of two different lives led. One member of the Qi Shu Fang Peking Opera Company works in a beauty salon and works daily with the SalonTouch tanning salon software while another is a licensed real estate agent. They make money during the day and at night, they perform in this dedicated troupe. But each finds their day jobs interesting, the woman talking about the importance of the presentation of hands in Peking Opera and doing her best to make sure the nails of her customers are also presentable, and the man pleased at being able to help other Chinese-Americans navigate their way toward finding a house, and in speaking two languages, also able to help them understand legal matters on both sides. It’s all an honorable collage of past and present in the dream-like world of Peking Opera. Jack Anderson of The New York Times, whose review of Master Qi’s work appears onscreen is right. She does create magic.
First Run Features’ DVD is quietly dignified, offering up “Bonus Performances” that include the final scene of The Legend of the White Snake Spirit with Qi Shu Fang as Bai Suzhen, and demonstrations by Master Qi and Ding Mei-kui in young maiden hand gestures and the Monkey King, respectively, both against a black background to bring more well-deserved attention to their performances. A photo gallery offers 12 photos of Master Qi and others, while “About the Performers” and “Alan Govenar Biography” present thorough profiles of the five main performers in the documentary, and Govenar. These are lives to admire.
Another onscreen text gives background about Alan Govenar’s traveling exhibition, “Dual Lives: Chinese Opera in New York City,” and how it can be brought to any institution that wants it.
First Run Features adds to its reputation as a welcoming, vivid museum of documentaries and other unique works by bring together trailers for Never Stand Still, The Beat Hotel, and Garbo under the banner “Film Gallery.” Pick one and be transported to a world entirely different from Peking Opera. Once you’re done, contribute to First Run Features’ attendance count by watching these documentaries some time, or really any other First Run Features offering. There’s so much to see in all its galleries (DVDs, of course) that you could never be bored by what you find.
The end of Master Qi and the Monkey King is mostly given over to an extended performance at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, which demonstrates my continuing curiosity in all kinds of opera. Not for one minute can you look away, not when Master Qi, in full, colorful costume, kicks away makeshift spears that her apparent attackers catch and then throw back, catch and then throw back. She makes it look so fluid because this has been her life, practicing for hours on end every day, seamlessly bringing audiences into the story and the characters involved. Govenar and editor Alan Hatchett quietly cut between different angles, giving you the best perspective each time. The concentration exuded by Master Qi and the rest of her troupe is remarkable, an inspiration to those looking to make strides in their own art, and a gateway for those who want to learn more on their own. I’m already on my way to doing so.