Show explores cross-gender role in Peking opera

Peking opera artist Tian Ping (far left) will narrate while cross-gender nandan Mou Yuandi (left) will perform in the Gateway To Peking Opera - The Nandan.
Peking opera artist Tian Ping (far left) will narrate while cross-gender nandan Mou Yuandi (left) will perform in the Gateway To Peking Opera - The Nandan.PHOTO: NANYANG MUSIC COMPANY

The mystery surounding nandan, where a male actor plays the leading female role in Peking opera, will be unveiled in a two-night performance by cross-gender Chinese opera star Mou Yuandi.

On Friday and Saturday at the China Cultural Centre, the 32-year- old teacher from the Shanghai Theatre Academy will perform excerpts from famous Peking operas, including The Drunken Concubine, Celestial Beauty Scattering Flowers and Battle Of Wan City, to highlight the nandan's role in opera.

The 90-minute show is staged by Nanyang Music Company, a non- profit organisation set up last year by a group of arts enthusiasts to advance multicultural cohesiveness through the performing arts.

Mou will also perform the water sleeves dance; the art of wearing the qiao, or shoes specially made for nandan; and do a 15-minute on-the-spot make-up transformation from man to woman, including putting on the headgear, on stage.

China-born Peking opera artist Tian Ping, 49, who moved here to teach opera in 1993 and is a Singaporean and founding member of Nanyang Music Company, will give the introduction and narration during the performance, titled Gateway To Peking Opera - The Nandan.

Tian, who also taught body movement to theatre students at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, says the show is the first of its kind to be staged here.

  • BOOK IT/GATEWAY TO PEKING OPERA - THE NANDAN

  • WHERE: China Cultural Centre Theatre, 217 Queen Street

    WHEN: Friday and Saturday, 8pm

    ADMISSION: $28 (free seating)

    INFO: Call 829-07211 for tickets

She adds: "Gateway To Peking Opera is a series of shows to entertain and inform the Singapore audience about the history and intricacies of the performing art form, starting with the nandan.

"Future focus may be on the laodan or old female role, and the daomadan, the female warrior role.

"We start the series with nandan, a cross-gender role because it is the most interesting. It has a long history and tradition dating to feudal China more than 1,000 years ago when women were not allowed to perform onstage. So the male actors had to fill the female roles in Chinese operas."

But unlike the similar castrato role played by men in Western operas, she points out, the nandan in Chinese opera was never thought to be a humorous or an ironic act of a man trying to sing and act like a woman.

She says: "It is not just simply singing in a woman's voice or wearing women's costumes on stage. The nandan in Chinese opera must be transformed totally, wear make-up and dress beautifully as a female. All his gestures and mannerisms on stage must be feminine."

Nandan became well-known in Peking Opera after the emergence of the Famous Four Nandans in the early 20th century. They included Mei Lanfang (1884-1961), whose youngest son Mei Baojiu, also a famous nandan, died in Beijing on Monday, aged 82.

Mou, who last performed here in 2010, started learning to become a nandan at age 10 in Jilin, where he was born. He says he had always liked to sing and act like a woman in Peking operas.

"I am looking forward to my performance in Singapore," he adds.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 27, 2016, with the headline 'Show explores cross-gender role in Peking opera'. Print Edition | Subscribe