The Chinese opera is a traditional form of stage entertainment, weaving together elements of mime, dance, song, dialogue, swordplay, and acrobatics into one fluid continuous flow. Gestures, movements and expressions incorporated within each performer's script come together to bring forth an impressive performance. In contrast to Western stage entertainment, which is subdivided into different categories such as opera, drama and sketches, Chinese opera has remained faithful to its original format over the centuries.
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By doing away with three-dimensional stage props and complicated backdrops found in Western opera, Chinese opera conveys the idea of time and space to the audience through the acting of performers. This simple and flexible technique is called "imagined time and space" in Chinese operatic terminology. The acting, however, is not mere imitation of movements in daily life. Instead, it has been perfected to bring out just their essentials, making them highly-stylize and rhythmic dancing movements. Such acting is described in Chinese stage language as "stylized formula". In addition, Chinese opera has specific costumes, facial make-ups, musical motifs and recitations to represent each character in the series of characters known as Xingtous. All this, plus imagined time and space and stylized acting, has enabled the story to rise above real life and create a strong dramatic atmosphere with distinct operatic effects.
Western ears do not readily appreciate this art, for Chinese opera often seems shrilly and 'noisy'. Shrill voices pierce the air, accompanied by loud gongs, crashing cymbals, pounding drums and droning stringed instruments. The music is not intended to be melodic, as in the West, but rather used as punctuation to the performance. Chinese opera is an art of the people - enjoyed and appreciated by all across the social spectrum. In a real sense it is a folk art, comparable in many ways with the Chinese Circus. Although the music of Chinese opera may seem very alien, the stories told are very familiar to those accustomed to Western opera: heroes battle overwhelmingly powerful foes, good versus evil, and lovers seek escape from domineering and disapproving parents.
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