By Susie Allen
Photos courtesy The Field Museum, by John Weinstein

The festival offers the greater Chicago community a wealth of opportunities to engage in the cultural discourse that is taking place across campus. ”
—Lawrence Zbikowski
associate professor in music and deputy provost for the arts

From its earliest days, Chinese opera captured the imagination of the public. By the 1400s, its vibrant characters and stories had spilled from the stage to portable paintings, prints, books, ceramics, and textiles available for purchase.

Over the next five months, the University of Chicago will host a wide-ranging look at the influence of Chinese arts and culture—from contemporary Chinese experimental video at the Smart Museum of Art to Chinese opera at the Logan Center to performances of M. Butterfly at Court Theatre—as part of “Envisioning China: A Festival of Arts and Culture.”

The festival began with plans for an exhibition at the Smart Museum of Art on visual representations of Chinese opera. But the interests of other campus arts groups helped the festival grow to include some 40 upcoming events, performances, and exhibitions.

“‘Envisioning China’ is an opportunity to magnify a selection of the incredible work on the arts and culture of China that is being done by our faculty, students, and professional arts organizations,” says Lawrence Zbikowski, associate professor in music and deputy provost for the arts. “The festival offers the greater Chicago community a wealth of opportunities to engage in the rich cultural discourse that is taking place across campus.” 

“‘Envisioning China’ pulls together a remarkable range of disciplines and expertise,” adds Leigh Fagin, assistant director of collaborative programming at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, who directed the festival. “It is a pleasure working with partners across the University to encourage audience engagement with different perspectives on the themes of the festival.”

Chinese opera from stage to screen

Chinese opera is a centerpiece of the five-month festival, which kicks off on Feb. 13 at the Smart Museum of Art with the opening of “Performing Images: Opera in Chinese Visual Culture.

Chinese opera can look and sound very different from its Western counterpart—so much so, in fact, that “people argue if ‘opera’ is really the right term,” explains “Envisioning China” faculty director Judith Zeitlin, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor in East Asian Languages and Civilizations, Theater and Performance Studies, and the College.

Unlike Western opera, where performers are grouped by voice type, Peking opera, the best known of Chinese opera, relies on different “role types.” The primary role types are the male lead, the female lead, the clown, and the “painted face” role, which could be a villain, a general, or a god. Each role requires special skills and training.

Over time, the distinctive imagery from Peking opera made its way into many other forms of media. “Performing Images,” co-curated by Zeitlin and Yuhang Li, PhD’11, now at the University of Wisconsin, highlights the use of opera imagery during the Qing period (1644-1911). Prof. Wu Hung curated a concurrent Smart Museum exhibition, “Inspired by the Opera: Contemporary Chinese Photography and Video,” which examines the influence of opera on contemporary Chinese art.

Wu says the two exhibitions share a common preoccupation with the way Chinese opera—its images, aesthetic, and themes—seeped into the rest of the culture.

“Because opera was so important in traditional Chinese visual culture, as [Zeitlin and Li’s] exhibition demonstrates, working with them, I began to think, ‘So what’s happened now? If opera was so important in traditional China, did it or does it just stop?’ No one had connected traditional opera and contemporary Chinese art,” explains Wu, the Harrie A. Vanderstappen Professor in Art History, East Asian Languages and Civilizations, and the College.

“I began to do some studies and look through artists’ work and think about this work from a different angle. I did see the connections between opera and contemporary art, and for me it’s very interesting,” Wu says.

A night at the Peking opera

“Envisioning China” also will provide a rare opportunity to see Peking opera in performance. The University will welcome Ling Ke, a rising star of Peking opera, as well as members of the acclaimed Tianjin Peking Opera Company for “A Night at the Peking Opera.”

Ling is known not only for his remarkable singing voice, but also for his commitment to the preservation of traditional Peking opera styles and repertoire, according to Zeitlin.

As many large opera companies in China use Western-influenced staging and production values, some performers like Ling have organized performances that revive more traditional elements. These include placing the instrumentalists on stage, rather than in the wings or an orchestra pit, relying on vocal power rather than microphones, and using limited stage design.

During their visit, Ling and the company will perform excerpts from three operas that feature the intricate music, vibrant costumes, and dazzling martial arts and acrobatics that define Peking opera on April 12. Ling also will deliver a solo recital on April 13.

“We wanted to show the variety of Peking opera,” says Zeitlin.

Theater and music

Other festival highlights include Court Theatre’s production of David Henry Hwang’s Tony Award-winning play M. Butterfly, directed by Court Theatre artistic director Charles Newell. The play explores the complex relationship between a French civil servant in China and a Chinese opera star.

“Envisioning China” also features a rich array of musical performances. The famed Shanghai Quartet will perform pieces by Verdi and Pulitzer Prize-winning Chinese composer Zhou Long. Lan Weiwei, a virtuoso of the pipa, the Chinese lute, will perform a new composition by UChicago alumnus Chen Yao, PhD’12, on June 1 at the Smart Museum. The Chinese Fine Arts Society will present a concert of works by contemporary Chinese composers Chen Yi, Lei Liang, Bright Sheng, and Liu Wenjin.

Film, too, will be a key part of the festival. Logan Center Exhibitions will present a selection of video works by iconic film-based artist Yang Fudong in an exhibition co-curated by Wu Hung and Monika Szewczyk. In addition, the Film Studies Center, in partnership with the Smart Museum, will screen two early Chinese opera films, Romance of the Western Chamber and Two Stars in the Milky Way, accompanied by a live score performance from pianist Donald Sosin.

“Envisioning China” runs Feb. 13 to June 15 at the University of Chicago.

Originally published on February 10, 2014.