Beijing Opera

For hundreds of years, Beijing opera troupes have delighted audiences with rich costumes, elaborate makeup, jaw-dropping acrobatics, and tales of betrayal and intrigue. Nowadays, operas staged in Beijing's theaters are typically of the Jing Ju style, which emerged during the Qing Dynasty, although there are more than 350 other kinds of Chinese opera, each distinguished by different dialects, music, costumes, and stories.

What you'll see and hear

A night at the opera gives a glimpse into China's past—not to mention a fascinating mix of drama, color, movement, and sound. To master the art of Beijing opera's leaping acrobatics, stylized movements, sword dances, and dramatic makeup techniques, actors begin their grueling training as young children.

Opera instrumentation consists of the percussive Wuchang–-the gongs, drums, cymbals, and wooden clappers that accompany exaggerated body movements and acrobatics–-and the melodic Wenchang, including the Chinese fiddle (erhu), the lutelike pipa, horns, and flutes. Neophytes may find two hours of the staccato clanging and nasal singing of Beijing opera hard to take (and most young Chinese fed on a diet of Western-style pop agree) but this dramatic, colorful experience can be one of the most memorable of your trip.

Before your trip

Watch Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine, a 1993 film that follows the life, loves, and careers of two male opera performers against a background of political turmoil. It also depicts the brutality of opera schools, where children were forced to practice grueling routines (balancing water jugs, doing headstands).

Mei Lanfang: Gay Icon and Opera Hero(ine)

Born in Beijing into a family of stage performers, Mei Lanfang (1894–1961) perfected the art of female impersonation during his five decades on stage. He’s credited with popularizing Beijing opera overseas and was so popular in his day that there was even a brand of cigarettes named after him. His gender-bending abilities earned him a special place in the hearts of gay activists across China. The Worlds of Mei Lanfang (2000) is an American documentary about him, with footage of his performances.

Where to Watch

There is opera performance any night of the week in Beijing, but there are more options on weekends. Shorter shows put on at venues such as Liyuan Theater and Huguang Guild Hall are full of acrobatics and fantastic costumes. Shows usually start around 7 pm and cost between Y50 and Y200. The free-listing magazines have information, and staffers at your hotel can recommend performances and help you book tickets. You can get a free taste of Chinese opera before you spring for tickets if you have access to a television; China Central Television broadcasts nonstop opera on its CCTV 11 channel.

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