April 28, 2005
Firstly, we went into the opera’s main hall. This truly has the "wow" factor, and once our eyes acclimatised to the dark environment, we started to pick out the main features. It is an intimate setting, not set out in conventional rows of fixed, low-back chairs, but instead high-backed Edwardian-style dining chairs arranged randomly around circular tables. Primarily, it seemed this theatre is an operatic dining room. People would gather here for the whole evening, enjoying food, drink, and an elaborate stage performance with exotic costumes and finely tuned voices.
The high roof and intimate upper gallery gave the hall a real sense of grandeur and we could only imagine the scene as voices soared heavenward to the majestically decorated ceiling with its hanging lanterns and elaborate centrepiece. The stage was dominated by a yellow silk backdrop (a colour, we’re told, that was originally only worn by the emperor), appropriately decorated in the classic Chinese style. It's boarded by large calligraphy signs and the front trimmed with a small wooden balustrade. The edge of the gallery and the top of the stage were decorated with a bright boarder of pink flowers.
Here, there is a sense of real opulence, with subtle curtaining draped around the gallery and lavish cloths swathed on the tables. If the performance matched the setting, it would surely be a magnificent night out.
We were then led through a small, picturesque courtyard into an ornate covered walkway, up a set of steep stairs and into the theatre’s museum. The courtyard had a bird in a cane cage, and the small reception building, with its double gable end, was classically decorated with flower carvings, ornate tiles, and sporting the "standard" green and red paintwork. Flowing lanterns hung from the corners – it had almost a temple-like appearance.
The museum is only in one room, but it's crammed full with items, making it an interesting visit. There are displays of numerous stage costumes from the early 1900s and a selection of photographs of the casts in costume. We learnt that in the early days of the theatre, indeed through to the early 1900s, female entertainers were not allowed on stage, so all parts were played by the male performers. Looking at the earlier photographs it would have been impossible to detect without that prior knowledge. My wife was quite taken with the fine detail and luxuriousness of the elaborate costumes, whereas I preferred studying the ancient musical instruments, the musical scores, and the early programmes.
From journal The Hutongs of Beijing