Before I came to Chongqing I searched the internet to find out what I could about the Sichuan Opera and the Chongqing Troupe. good quality video proved difficult to find on youtube and vimeo but there were many good images. These were mainly of masked performers and the wonderfully elaborate costumes. Due partly to the limited amount of images no individuals in particular stood out or were memorable with the exception of this lady on the left.
This is Shen Tiemei (pronounced Tia May), performer and director of the Chongqing Sichuan opera Troupe. When I arrived at the Opera House for the first time Tiemie and the troupe were away. As I was shown around the museum I soon noticed that her picture is everywhere and that she is a very important person. Eventually I learnt she was the director and I would be meeting her very soon. Somehow my pre-discovery of Tiemie on the internet, her high position and the further wait of another week to meet her started to make me very nervous. When I did meet her in her office, which is very plush, I felt like a school kid going to meet the principl for the first time. Tiemei doesn’t speak english and our translator was Peter, an admin staff member from the troupe. Peter and I get on great but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t understand me at the best of times so I’m not too sure what I communicated to Tiemie in that first meeting but it all seemed very positive.
Then Tiemei stood up and Peter said “You will go and see the theatre!” and off we set at a determined pace. Thinking I had seen the theatre already I figured I would nod and go “oh yes” politely. But Peter disappeared and Tiemei led me through doors and into an area that looked like the backstage of Birmingham’s Symphony Hall. On we went through various doors passing large staging and double bass cases amongst others things until we arrived into a very large theatre. I had been in Opera House for a week and had no idea this existed. Rehearsals were under way and Mr Liu was leading the full band in the pit. It sounded more modern than the traditional opera I had heard downtown and there were some very western style orchestrations. The orchestra was augmented with cello and double bass. Tiemei gestured to me to sit down, smiled and then began rehearsing with the troupe. It was a very impressive move from the office to the theatre and rehearsal.
As with Mr Liu it is very evident that Tiemie is a talented and passionate performer. The opera is her life and I wondered if it her journey had not been without it’s difficulties. The present setting of the Opera House and Tiemei’s growing international reputation certainly seem very comfortable and rewarding. She has performed in The Lincoln Centre and conducted a 27 city tour of France. But I doubted it had always been easy in a modernising society. I found this article from 2007 on China.org.cn that shed a bit of further light and confirmed a bit of what I thought. It is also reminded me that, as with the theatre, there is only so much I can know whilst I am here and the bigger stories will likely elude me.