Chinese opera debuts at Towson's Many Moons Festival

The daylong celebration of Asian arts includes performances on six stages and food from seven Asian cultures.

September 09, 2010|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

When the Chu San Chinese Opera Institute bows at the Many Moons Festival on Sunday, audience members will be able to tell the personalities of the characters on stage simply by looking into their faces.

According to traditions developed more than 3,000 years ago, characters wearing red makeup will invariably be intelligent, courageous, loyal and full of integrity.

Black greasepaint represents firmness of purpose and honesty, while those with blue visages will prove stubborn and intractable. Most of all, beware those whose faces are painted white, for they are sly, manipulative, treacherous and cruel.

"In Chinese opera, the manner in which characters are made up is like a language written across their faces," says Suewhei Shieh, director of the Asian Arts and Culture Center at Towson University.

"It's interesting to watch an audience who is familiar with Chinese opera. When a character appears on stage, the audience immediately recognizes whether he is good or bad, and what his social status is."

The opera institute will perform excerpts from "The Monkey King" and "Farewell, My Concubine" at 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. Sunday in Kaplan Hall. Shieh says she has wanted for some time to introduce Baltimore audiences to the intricacies of Chinese opera, which is characterized by stylized movements and orchestral music played at a high volume. Unlike Western classical music, in which a dramatic percussive section may be followed by a quiet passage for flutes or violins, in Chinese opera all of the instruments play simultaneously, from the opening scene to the final curtain.

"When people see Chinese opera for the first time," Shieh says, "they always comment about how loud it is."

In addition to the performances, the opera institute will include a 3:30 p.m. workshop in the Ruth Marder Studio Theatre in which the art form's makeup techniques will be demonstrated and the symbolism explained.

For instance, Shieh says, if a character is destined to be so heroic that he eventually achieves godlike status, his eyes will be made up with ascending lines. Similarly, a character who is a magnet for bad fortune will have a mouth that turns sharply downward.

"In Chinese opera, the stories are so familiar that the audience doesn't even pay attention to them," Shieh says. "What they watch instead are the expressions on the characters' faces. These performances never die."

But opera isn't the only new aspect of this year's Many Moons Festival, which will be celebrated for the fifth time at the university since 2001, and which usually attracts about 3,000 visitors.

Shieh is introducing a program of 10 animated short films, each between five and 12 minutes long, from Taiwan, Japan and the Philippines. The movies (wordless or with English subtitles), will be shown in a loop from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.

In addition, the main stage performances will be supplemented by a dance ahowcase in which local performers will demonstrate such genres as the hula and belly dance.

"People love to see dance," Shieh says, "and this year, there will be more dance at the Many Moons Festival than there ever has been before."

In addition to the opera institute, this year's featured performers includes the Wood & Strings Theatre, which will introduce festival visitors to puppetry traditions ranging from Indonesian shadow puppetry to Japanese Bunraku.

The Takoma Park-based Silk Road Dance Company, which has performed worldwide, will showcase a wide range of dancing styles from the Middle East, Asia and Caucasus. Two other troupes will demonstrate Japanese and Indian dance traditions, while musician Prem Raja Mahat (who leads the Himalayan Music Group and is one of the most popular performers in the Nepalese world) will perform.

There will be a martial arts showcase, and workshops on topics as diverse as forming figurines from dough and kite making. And there will be a marketplace with traditional crafts for sale, and food representing the cuisines of Vietnam, Iran, China, Japan, Thailand, India and Nepal.

"In one day, you can come in, go to the theater, watch a puppet show and learn how to wear a kimono," Shieh says. "And you can do it all for the price of one ticket."

If you go

The Many Moons Festival will be held from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday at Towson University's Center for the Arts, 8000 York Road, Towson. Tickets are $5-$20. Call 410-704-2807 or go to

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