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Reform and Development of Opera Music

Over the centuries, opera music has had to confront two problems. The first is how to carry forward and develop the traditions of folk opera music, and enrich and improve it. The second is how to reflect new lifestyles and create new images. In the past four decades, opera musicians, actors, actresses and accompanists have achieved great progress in the reform of songs, tunes and accompaniment. Updating traditional operas and creating new ones (using historical or modern plots and themes) is also a constant challenge. There are two methods to be adopted in the process of reform: First, it is necessary to sum up historical experience and adapt it to the existing techniques for the composition of music. Second, Western ways and methods of the composition of music can be adopted and applied to the Chinese opera stage.

As vocal music is the major tool of expression used to express the personalities of opera characters, reforms in this field should draw on the strong points of other opera roles, other operas, and popular and folk songs, as well as the tradition of recitation-and-song performances. (Fig.6-8)

Another demonstration of the reform of vocal music is the modern reorganization of timbre and rhythm in order to develop a new style. The Yuju (Henan) Opera Chaoyang Valley the Luju (Shanxi) Opera Remarriage of Aunt Li and the Yueju (Guangdong) Opera Guan Hanqing demonstrate such a breakthrough. (Fig.6-9)

Some unique forms and ways of expression in traditional operas have been creatively used in new operas. The singing of Aunt Aqing, Hu Chuankui and Diao Deyi in the scene of struggle of the intelligentsia in the Peking Opera Shajiabang is a result of the use of traditional ways of expression. The singing adequately demonstrates the personalities of the three people and their complicated relationships. (Fig.6-10)

Traditionally, choral, antiphonal and backup singing were not well developed in Chinese opera; only solos matured. But the new operas have absorbed the forms of chorus and ensembles of two or more singers. Still drawing inspiration from traditional tunes and modes, these new forms of singing have shown a good coordination of styles. In the past, some operas were performed by either males or females only For instance, Yuju (Henan) Opera and Qinqiang (Shanxi) Opera were performed only by actors, and Yueju (Shanghai) Opera by actresses. So they had to adopt unnatural voices to distinguish the male and female roles. With the modern trend toward using natural genders, the music of many operas has had to be adapted accordingly. A similar difficulty involved the traditional use of local diaiects. Now, the standard Chinese language is used for all operas.

Meanwhile, some orchestras have added or changed instruments, including folk music instruments and certain Western musical instruments. This has led composers to experiment with the adaptation of folk and Western tunes. Another innovation is the composition of music which permeates the whole opera. For instance, in the Huju (Shanghai) Opera The White-Haired Girl, the vocal music titled, The North Wind Blows is the main theme of the whole opera. The theme tune of the Kunju Opera Cai Wenji is taken from the 18 Beats for Hu Jia, a string composition. This method has been used widely in both modern and historical-theme operas to enhance characterization and general dramatic effects.

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