An affair of the masses

Chinese opera is not all shrieks and bangs, as Edward Skidelsky discovers on a visit to Shanghai

"Would you like to see an opera?" asks my girlfriend Junqing during my recent visit to Shanghai. I hesitate. Chinese opera has always struck me as somewhere on a par with fried locusts and sumo wrestling - part of life's rich tapestry, no doubt, but otherwise best avoided. Its bangs and shrieks defeat all efforts at cross-cultural understanding. But Junqing is a fan, and so, for her sake, I smile sweetly and say yes.

She soon puts me right on a point of fact. Those horrible bangs and shrieks belong specifically to Peking opera, which westerners often mistake for Chinese opera as a whole. In fact, each region of China has its own opera, some less painful than others. Junqing wants to take me to her favourite, the local Yue opera. This bastard child of early 20th-century Shanghai combines Chinese settings and melodies with western orchestration. If Peking opera is stern and tragic, Yue opera is soft and sentimental. The costumes are gorgeous, the tunes flowing. Oh, and the singers are all women, a legacy of the days when the two sexes could not decently appear on stage together.

The next performance is sold out, so Junqing arranges a visit to her friend Madam Wu, a well-known Yue opera writer with connections at the theatre. We knock on the door of an old French Concession apartment and are greeted by a plump, bubbly woman in her sixties. Junqing introduces me, rather optimistically, as an English writer who will help popularise Yue opera in the west. We are plied with Nescafé and satsumas and regaled with stories, pictures and video clips. Madam Wu is an incorrigible romantic. A fan of the opera from childhood, her dreams of becoming a singer were cut short, she tells us, by a lack of beauty. So she became a writer instead, with a mission to "reveal the beauty in people's hearts".

In the west, Madam Wu would be called a librettist, but the term doesn't really describe her job. One of the oddities of Yue opera is that each singer brings to her various roles a personal melody, a signature tune, so that the score of an opera changes from production to production. The composer's job is limited to orchestration, and is usually carried out anonymously by the lead violinist. The librettist is the more important figure, for it is he or she who creates the script that defines the work. Not even this is fixed, however, but can be chopped and changed on demand. A Yue opera is no timeless masterpiece, but a shifting medley of tunes and words, a vehicle for the real stars of the show: the singers.

The stories on which Madam Wu bases her operas are drawn from Chinese literature and mythology. Most feature a pair of lovers trapped by the demands of family duty. In some, the lovers die and are reincarnated as ghosts, butterflies or doves. In others, the hero wins both girl and - the ultimate accolade - first prize in the imperial examination. This is the stuff of fantasy, the Chinese equivalent of Regency romance. Occasionally, however, the old stories are given a new twist.

Dream of the Butterfly is based on the legend of the Taoist magus Chuang-tzu, who woos his wife in the guise of a handsome young man to test her fidelity. In the original story, she succumbs and is briskly divorced. But in Madam Wu's reinterpretation, she sees through her husband's disguise and shames him. A parable of female frailty is transformed into one of male jealousy.

The next evening, we meet Madam Wu in the theatre lobby, where she is surrounded by an excited gaggle of elderly Chinese women. "E-de-war-de, E-de-war-de!" she calls, flattered (so Junqing later tells me) by this rare appearance of a foreign visitor. Words are spoken to the doorman and we are whisked to our seats. The atmosphere inside the auditorium is more vaudeville than Covent Garden. Spectators come and go, chat loudly, and munch on nuts and sugar cane. Famous lines are greeted with cheers. Chinese opera has always been an affair of the masses, not the elite, and never underwent the Wagnerian transformation into a solemn rite. It is something that no longer exists in Europe: an art that is both traditional and populist, a genuinely folk art.

Tonight's show stars a singer who is, unusually, a man. To be exact, he is a man impersonating a woman impersonating a man - a feat of cross-dressing that should inspire doctorates in gender studies. His movements are tightly choreographed, in the delicate, restrained style of the Far East. Emotions are expressed by means of stylised gestures: a fan over the face for shyness, trembling fingers for anger, and - most bizarrely of all - flapping sleeves for sorrow. The music is strangely beautiful, with long meandering vocal lines and sliding vowels. What it seems to lack is expressive, dramatic power. The orchestration is faint, and there are no major or minor keys, so I have to rely on the trembling fingers and flapping sleeves to know what the characters are feeling. But perhaps there are other indicators to which I am not attuned. Junqing certainly seems to have no difficulty.

Tonight's performance is a great success, but a quick glance round the auditorium shows that this is an art form in decline. The spectators are almost all over 60. They would have encountered Yue opera in their youth, before the Cultural Revolution condemned it on the grounds of bourgeois individualism. It reopened in 1978, but failed to make new converts. Young people in China now frequent karaoke bars, where the menu is strictly pop. It seems, in retrospect, that one of the enduring achievements of Chinese communism was to clear the ground for American consumer culture.

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Naughty nation