Student Honors Traditional Chinese Art as Beijing Opera Performer

By Andrew Rowan ’19, Marketing and Communications Student Intern

For the past five years, Rachel Liu ’20 has been training as a Beijing Opera performer. Beijing opera is a form of Chinese Opera, which dates back to the late 18th century, and combines the skills of singing, dancing, and acrobatics.

While there are thousands of different roles in Beijing Opera, Rachel has performed characters “that demonstrate housekeeping and how life was like back in ancient China, but [she has] also performed martial arts roles to depict the many battles [that have] taken place,” she said.

It takes many years for a person to learn Beijing Opera, but Rachel said she mastered the basics “rather quickly” after being “lucky enough to learn from one of the best teachers.” The basics of Beijing opera is footwork, body positions, facial expressions, and stance.

For singing, performers use their nasal voice and use the energy from their abdomen to reach the high notes. “I am still learning to sing and have already sang on stage before. Singing is very difficult because of [the delicacy of] pronouncing the words and hitting certain pitches. The professional Beijing opera singers can point out any small mistake you made, even if you think you didn’t [make any mistakes],” said Rachel, “this is [why] it is important to practice singing every day.”

There is an acrobatic component to Beijing Opera, particularly in the martial arts roles. Rachel described her role playing a character named Hu San Niang: “She is a fictional female warrior who has the ability to fight off dozens of men at one time. In this performance, a lot of high jumping and kicking is required.” Rachel continued on, “You also need to be skillful in using the spear, because it is [Hu San Niang’s] weapon. Many props are used on stage in order to portray the story better and add impact to the actions.”

“My favorite part about performing is seeing the happiness of the audience. Beijing Opera is all about entertaining the audience and making them feel joy and excitement,” detailed Rachel. In Beijing opera, people in the audience often shout “!” or “Good/Great!” when they are watching a particularly good performance. “[This is the] main goal for the performer, because it shows that his/her skills were enough to entertain and satisfy everyone,” explained Rachel.

Chinese Teacher Ahnam Chu, who has been going to Beijing Opera performances for years, said it was “very special” to be able to see her student perform back in December. “It really surprised me because to be able to sing is one thing but to be able to practice martial arts at the same time is really special,” said Mrs. Chu.

Rachel is also on the MFS Girls’ Fencing Sabre Squad and recently captured third place in the NJSIAA District 2 Individual Sabre Championships. Mrs. Chu suggested that her work as an opera performer may contribute to her accomplishments in fencing. Mrs. Chu concluded that Rachel’s talents “are wonderful to have in the community.”

“Beijing Opera is something that is treasured and valued in China. Not many people know about it, because it is slowly disappearing as old traditions are replaced by modern culture. China has already stepped up to preserve this traditional art, and I hope that people here can also preserve this wonderful art,” said Rachel. “Although I am not a professional, the things that I have learned already make me appreciate this tradition.”