Serendipity. It’s one of the wonderful things about travel. You’re walking back to your room after dinner, when the sound of clashing cymbals and high-pitched singing draws you to the end of your street.
We crossed the the busy road separating us from the riverside park that borders the Mekong River in Vientiane, Laos, to discover a full-blown Chinese opera in progress. At first, it was nearly a sensory overload: extremely loud music, bright costumes, lively movement, lots of glittering gold, wafts of incense. And an audience that came and went at will – rearranging the plastic chairs as they wished, leaving to chase small children or buy snacks, holding up their mobile phones to capture video – yet despite all this activity, raptly following every line and movement.
Neither of us had ever seen live Chinese opera before, and we certainly didn’t expect to see it in Vientiane, the capital city of Laos. We’ve been here a few days, applying for our new Thailand visas, walking around looking at beautiful wats, searching out vegetarian food and staying out of the midday sun.
It gets dark early here, so by the time we were walking back from our dinner a couple of nights ago, evening entertainments had already started. As we walked toward the river, we caught some familiar music: John Denver’s “Country Roads,” sung live. As we walked around a large circular wooden platform, I was surprised to see the singer/guitar player was a young Laotian man with a young lady shaking a rhythm instrument to accompany him. His voice sounded so much like John Denver, I’d assumed he was a foreigner, even a North American.
We stood and watched the singer until he’d finished, and clapped for the performance. As he launched into a new song, his sweet voice and melodic chords were soon replaced by something else: the clashing cymbals and high-pitched music of traditional Chinese opera.
The stage was set up across from a newly built Chinese temple that’s located at the roadside edge of the riverside park. It’s so new it hasn’t been fully painted yet, and there’s more new construction underway. Beside the temple were tables with canvas canopies sheltering them, just like you’d see at any outdoor market or festival, and between the canopies and the brightly decorated stage was a sea of white plastic chairs arranged in rows.
We had no idea what was going on, but were entranced by the spectacle. The stage was filled with elaborately dressed actors in what looked like a court scene. A group of courtiers waved fans and circled before two seated actors who were portraying royal personages, I presumed.
The actors’ faces were thickly covered in makeup designed to look like they were wearing masks – but masks with unusual animation and expression. I loved the contrast between the artifice and the lively expressions conveyed by the actors’ eyes and facial movements. It reminded me of how classical Indian dancers are trained in abhinaya, or expression, especially the use of the eyes and gestures of the hands, arms and head.
The costumes were wonderful to look at. Extremely bright colors, lots of gold trimming, sleeves ending in long white cuffs that hid the actors’ hands, and huge glittering belts like hula-hoops that the actors had to lift before sitting down.
The courtiers in the fan-dance scene had long skinny feathers extending from their heads at least three feet into the air, waving about like antennae. On their backs they wore pairs of flags, giving the effect of wings. They were like butterflies, but butterflies with bodies of elaborate brocade, and brightly-colored faces.
As I said, I didn’t understand the plot at all, but in fact it was pretty easy to follow the action. At one point, two actors turned their backs to the audience, then suddenly whirled around to face us. Each actor held a small figure of a baby in their arms. A series of gestures indicated feeding the babies, before they were suddenly swept away again and concealed, probably in the voluminous sleeves of the actors’ costumes.
In the middle of one scene, all the actors descended from the stage to the aisle between the rows of white chairs. I thought for a moment they were going to interact with the audience, but they trooped off to a large alter area under a big tent behind the audience. The audience – us included – got up and followed the actors. Along with people dressed in ordinary clothes, the actors took part in an offering at the altar, their praying gestures more defined than those of the non-actors, and their masklike makeup and bright costumes making it much more ceremonial. It was as if legendary, historical beings had time-traveled, or perhaps floated down from heaven, to take part in the ritual, blessing us ordinary mortals with their presence.
After a few minutes of group photos and selfie-taking with excited audience members, the actors trooped back up onto the stage, exited into the wings, and, after a couple of minutes, resumed the show.
The second night, we heard the now- familiar music from our room where we were holed up, studying and writing. We couldn’t resist – we had to return to the opera. I saw the same actors, but this time in different costumes, and the action and plot seemed to be completely different. I was amazed. I guess I had assumed the actors would simply repeat the same show each night, but this was an entirely different one. We went back last night, and the show was completely different yet again: costumes, characters, songs, scenes. I marveled at how much these actors have memorized: dialogue, songs, dance, movements. And these shows are long – they go on for hours.
Our host in the place where we stayed told us that this troupe of actors are actually Thai Chinese, and that they come every year. Apparently they travel from place to place, performing their repertory. It reminded me that performers in many cultures (and in many periods of history) normally travel to their audiences, rather than being able to stay in one place and have the audience come to them.
The second night, we watched the actors take the stage, one by one, and introduce their characters. Each would walk in circles before us, describing their character with its own set of distinctive gestures. These movements might be martial, or regal, or small and graceful, depending on the character they were depicting. There’s a tall female actor I watched intently whenever she took the stage; during her character introduction, she occasionally kicked her long legs into the air as she circled, the panels of her costume flying up around the white silk pajamas she wore below.
This same actress impressed me with her emotional range. Her face and her deliberate, graceful movements conveyed every mood, from scorn to humor to pride to grief.
The second and third nights’ performances had a lot more conversation than we’d heard the first night. The words were pronounced with care, in very high-pitched voices, many of the words drawn out for emphasis. We’ve been studying Thai, which like Chinese, is a language that relies on tone for meaning. I could really hear the tones in these dialogues; it was almost like singing.
Each night I found myself more absorbed in the performance. I don’t know any Chinese, but layers of meaning seemed to unfold as I watched. I understood when characters were fighting, when they were posturing their strength, when a character was surprised, or pleased; when they were declaring something important, when they were merely gossiping, when they were crying.
From time to time, the actors would talk to one another out of character. It seemed they were either giving each other directions or commenting on conditions either onstage or off. For example, it started raining the second night we attended, and the audience members, a few at a time, began moving their plastic chairs back a few feet and arranging them under the canopies. Two of the actors watched and passed a few remarks to each other. Somehow, though, these breaks from character weren’t disturbing; in fact, they were fun. Sometimes you’d see an actor barely suppressing laughter at another actor’s lines or movements.
Getting absorbed in the performances really changed my feelings about Chinese opera. I’d seen a little bit in films, and found it stilted and strange. Traditional Chinese music, too, seemed strange to me: oddly high, almost whiny, both discordant and repetitive. These past few nights, I responded very differently to the music; I could hear much beauty in it. The plucking of strings reminds me of wind ruffling through the treetops, of water running between rocks. The thin high cries of the singers summon the moon shining through a nimbus of cloud. Deep drum beats followed by clashing cymbals are thunder and lightning.
Late at night in our room, close to midnight and just meters away from the Chinese music, I lay in bed and witnessed images of natural scenery appearing before me. I moved through the familiar forests of the Pacific Northwest, across the grassy hilltops of North Wales. I wound my way through the tropical forests of Meghalaya, huge bright butterflies darting everywhere. I watched clumps of tall bamboo swaying in the wind, clouds rolling behind. Like the scenery of a Chinese scroll painting unrolling before me, my gaze took in mountains, plains, fields and villages, arriving finally before sleep at the shore of an ocean, its vastness studded with wavelets sparkling like tiny gems.