I promised myself that I would see the Chinese opera. I made many such promises before my trip began. I guess you could call it my to-do list. When I arrived in Chengdu I knew I wanted to see pandas, and treat myself to the modern day version of Madam Butterfly.
I have never seen Madam Butterfly. That was just another idea that was stuck in my head.
I arranged a ticket and a driver to the Sichuan Opera through my hostel’s tourist desk. It was over 200 yuan, a price that made me gulp, but I paid up. I keep my promises.
Thirty minutes before the show I hopped into a boxy mini-van alone with a driver who spoke no English, and sped through the smog-orange night streets of Chengdu.
Among the crowd of early arrivers I found an usher who guided me through a sea of empty, unnumbered chairs, then by some magic, pointed out my seat. Planted solitarily in the row of wicker, I waited for the rest of the audience to arrive. In front of my knees there was a low table. Small white tea cups were in front of each place, along with a basket of peanuts to share. Two seconds after my usher departed, another appeared with a teapot and some loose leaves. She served me, and left. I sipped the tea, not expecting much.
I must stop to make a brief note on tea in China.
This is not your average 12-month-old, shredded, over-baked, over-priced leaf peddled by Lipton. Oh, no. Lipton is only the sad, anorexic cousin of this tea. The tea in China is festival of subtle and phenomenal flavor which constantly surprises the tongue. There are different varieties (the only name of which I can remember is Oolong...shame on me!) which can be strained with flowers to produce further layers of fantasticness. While I definitely enjoy Earl Grey, Chai, or the wide selection of herbal teas available in America I must say this, friends: you have not experienced tea unless you have had in China.
Delighted, I sipped my share slowly, savoring while the theater filled up. About halfway through my cup I witness something wonderful: There was an usher carrying a pot of hot water that had a long, thin spout so that he could reach over the legs of the guests easily, and fill individual cups without spilling a drop.
I drained my cup immediately. Poof! More magic! The usher appeared 30 seconds later, and refilled it.
I began chugging greedily. It was a delicious game. It was wonderful and magical.
It was a mistake.
Before for the lights dimmed, I started to feel a slight pressure around my gut. In my tea-craze, I ignored the feeling. The lights went up. More magic! Enter, stage right a small woman with a mask-white face and dramatically drawn eyebrows, dressed in colorful gold brocade. The blue lights cast mystical shadows on her costume and then she sang - her mouth opened and she enchanted me.
The show was actually a sort of variety show. There was singing, acting, and acrobatics - the kind that always makes me hold my breath and pray to jeebus that no one gets killed due to the lack of safety nets.
About halfway through these antics, a singer hit a high note, and so did my bladder. I twisted from my seat and hobbled to the back of the theater, regretting my gluttonous tea slurping. More magic! There was a beautiful bathroom, full of western. style. toilets. Thank googly moogly! I returned quickly, resenting myself for the minutes lost. But before I could feel too bad, the lights dimmed again and a new act my began.
This is what happened.
Music rolled in and behind a screen there appeared a shadow man. He bowed, stepped out of the spotlight, leaving only his hands visible. As the music swelled his shadow fingers transformed into a bird, flying over a mountain. Stopping to groom itself on a branch. Transformed into a rabbit, into a horse, into many animals so fluidly that I could not even breath because my eyes took all my energy, watching.
Transform, transform, transform.
With every change, I gasped and gaped. I was five years old again, believing everything. Then, the music sighed and fingers reappeared at last, the end. One collective gasp, then the audience laughed and clapped. We were totally delighted.
The rest of the show just continued to get more magical after that point, although I truthfully cannot say that I remember the details. Just the feeling: enchanted and happy. I was so elated that when it was all over, I did something so stupid, so touristy that I still shocked by myself.
I paid to have my picture taken with the actors.
The price was a little over 2 US dollars. Not much in the grand scheme of things, but in Chengdu 20 yuan could be a nice meal, 10 bus rides, or even half the price of a night at a hostel. The point that I am trying to make was that it was a stupid price.
And I paid it anyways.
The picture taking was even more fun than the show itself. Mostly because they actors, looking as bright and exotic as alien birds. were staring at ME in shock. And me, and I stare at the camera with a big cheesy grin.
I felt like...just so much happy, there wasn’t enough room on my face.