Kevin Zhang: Peking opera

Estimated reading time:7 minutes, 22 seconds

 Everyone has a story. Will you be shouting ‘hao’ (bravo) when the China National Peking Opera Company performs A River All Red and The Phoenix Returns Home at Sadler’s Wells Theatre from 21-25 October? Here Kevin Zhang from Sinolink, which has brought the show to London, talks Peking opera. Q&A by Nicola Baird

Kevin Zhang (c) Sinolink Productions

Q: Tell Islington Faces a bit about yourself
My name is Kevin Zhang, 42, and I am the producer and director of Sinolink Productions. Sinolink Productions is an arts promotion company created to present the best of China’s art and culture to a global audience. I was a founding member of the London Jing Kun Opera Association and a keen Peking Opera performer myself.

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Q Can you explain your connection with the Peking Opera?
Peking Opera (sometimes called Beijing Opera or Jingju) is a national theatrical treasure and popular across China. The China National Peking Opera Company is based in Beijing. This is the third time we have brought the Peking Opera to the UK. I wanted to share my passion for the wonderful stagecraft so in 2015 we brought over The China National Peking Opera Company for a short tour of the UK. After the extremely successful 2015 & 2016 productions in the UK, with 5-star reviews and national television appearances, I am honoured to present the China National Peking Opera Company once again on the London Stage.

Q What’s special about the 2017 show & why Sadler’s Wells?
This is a rare opportunity to enjoy an authentic piece of Chinese cultural heritage on a UK stage. 2017 also marks the 45th anniversary of the Ambassadorial diplomatic ties between China and Britain. We feel privileged to be part of celebrating the Golden Era of our bilateral ties and contributing to strengthening friendship and cultural understanding between our two countries.

As a globally renowned dance theatre Sadler’s Wells is a wonderful home for this production. One of the most important aspects of Peking Opera is movement, it’s called dance-acting. Every movement has meaning, gestures and actions which reveal character traits, emotions and plot. The actors’ posture should resemble beautiful, elegant, carved statues, they can glide, as if on skates, across the stage and the combat is a fusion of dance and breath-taking acrobatics.

Q: What’s the show like?
It suits all ages, we would say over six years though. The acrobatics are amazing and the costumes are spectacular, it really is a visual feast for all. Of course, the Peking Opera aficionados will be interested in coming, it’s a rare opportunity to catch these masterpieces in the UK. We have found in previous shows that second- and third-generation Chinese have been  extremely moved to see a slice of their Chinese cultural heritage on a London stage.

Also we have found that those attracted to China and its culture, those interested in theatrical stagecraft, global music and even fashion have found this art form holds an interest for them.

A River All Red (c) Sinolink Productions

Q: How many people are in the show?
There are 65 cast, musicians and crew coming over, so it’s a big production. I am not in the show. I used to perform on a semi-professional basis for many years in the UK and across Europe. I was a professionally trained Jingju artist, hence my passion for sharing this fabulous art form with the London audience. I carefully select the programmes for our London show, the most suitable for new Peking Opera audiences and the finest from their repertoire.

Li Shengsu in The Phoenix Returns Home (c) Sinolink Productions

Q: Help us understand the show
The dance-acting, which is in every movement, can reveal so much of the character, emotion and plot. Watch out for how the water sleeves are used to also bring tears and joy to the stage. Another one of the essential stagecraft skills is combat which is a beautiful stylised fusion of dance, with swords and spears, martial arts and acrobatics. Choose from:

  • Saturday 21October – A River All Red – 7:30pm
  • Sunday 22 October – The Phoenix Returns Home – 7:30pm
  • Tuesday 24 October – A River All Red – 7:30pm
  • Wednesday 25 October – The Phoenix Returns Home – 7:30pm

There’s a you tube clip from 2015

Here’s a clip of face painting necessary for this year’s show (2017).

Q Who makes the best audiences?
We adore London. Peking Opera attracts quite diverse audiences, obviously we have our aficionados, but as there are so many layers to it, it is also popular with those with an interest in China’s cultural heritage, global arts, students of theatre and anyone who wants to experience one of China’s national treasures of art.

Workshops and panel discussions have been part of our previous tours and we are hoping to deliver a panel discussion this year too with leading academics in this field. We know that the more an audience understand about Peking Opera the more they will enjoy it. There is a lot to understand about Peking Opera – it is theatre that emphasises stylisation over realism, there is a lot of symbolism on the stage. The painted faces define the characters and the costumes reveal status and mood, a singular baton held by a warrior can become his mighty steed.

Kevin Zhang with the lead performers from the China National Peking Opera Company, Yu Kuizhi and Li Shengsu. (c) Sinolink Productions

Q Tell us some places you like in Islington

  • As acting is such hungry work, as soon as the masks are off, we like to head to either The Gate, 370 St John Street, EC1, which boasts delicious Indo-Iraqi Jewish cuisine, or equally Niche , 197-199 Rosebery Avenue – the Diner’s choice awards 2017 Winner (with 100 per cent gluten free menu) – to eat.
  • Camden Passage is a lovely respite from a day in the theatre – Wednesday mornings especially when an antique market pops up.
  • The Candid Cafe at the Candid Arts Trust, 3 Torrens Street, EC1 is full of wonderful exhibitions to browse and as part of the Candid Arts Centre charity supports recently graduated artists and designers.
  • Culpeper Community Garden, 1 Cloudesley Road, N1 definitely deserves its title as one of the UK’s best secret parks, its tranquillity makes it an ideal place for our performers to run through their lines.

Q Please tell us three things we must do if we visit China
1) Visit the Great Wall 2) Watch Peking opera 3) Eat Roast Duck. Well you can have lovely roast duck in London Chinatown, we couldn’t bring the Great Wall to the UK (this time), but we have brought Peking Opera to your doorstep.

Q Are Beijing  and London similar?
Both Beijing and London are vibrant, busy, fun, culturally open-minded cities. In London and Beijing people look for cultural experiences and want to broaden their global experiences and understanding of other cultures. The difference – well maybe the weather is more extreme from winter to summer, but even that seems to be more comparable recently.

Q: Is there anything I haven’t asked that you think would be good to tell the readers of Islington faces?
It’s part of the culture of Peking Opera Theatre that the audience shouts a good throaty ‘Hao’ (Bravo) throughout the show to show appreciation of the amazing performance pieces. Cries of ‘Hao’ accompanied by the rapturous rounds of applause have been known to fill the auditorium when the audience is impressed, often even drowning out the musicians playing on stage. Shouts of ‘Hao’ are always well received by the performers and make for a wonderful, engaging Peking Opera experience. There is so much more I could tell you about Peking Opera, but we would need reams of paper and hours of time. This is a rare and fabulous opportunity to catch, not only a spectacular, intriguing stagecraft, but also a chance to experience a little of China’s cultural heritage.

  • The China National Peking Opera Company will be performing A River All Red and The Phoenix Returns Home at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, 21st-25th October. To purchase tickets, visit the Sadler’s Wells website. 

Over to you
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