Dave Barry

A night at the Beijing Opera


I went to see the Beijing Opera, a traditional Chinese art form that combines singing, mime, dancing and acrobatics. I would say the highlight was the food.

We sat at a table with a nice arrangement of cookies, fruits and candies. As soon as we were seated, two guys in shiny gold jackets came over carrying teapots with the longest spouts I have ever seen, three feet easy. These guys immediately started performing amazing feats of teapot dexterity, spinning the teapots, twirling them, whipping them around their bodies martial-arts style. Kung Fu tea pourers!

Suddenly the men stopped twirling and, in unison, aimed the spouts at two teacups, filling them with perfectly aimed tea streams from more than a foot away without spilling a drop. Then they whipped the teapots around and filled two more teacups from behind their backs.

It was by far the most impressive beverage service I have ever seen. I bet these guys could kill you using only tea. God only knows what they could do with a scone.

Next came the opera. There are a lot of ignorant, narrow-minded, uninformed and just plain stupid people who will tell you that the Beijing Opera is weird and boring. I agree with these people.

The biggest problem for me was the pacing. I'm used to American action movies, which routinely feature shootings, stabbings, sex scenes, car chases, helicopter crashes, nuclear explosions and at least one beheading before the opening title. Whereas in the Beijing Opera, it can take a performer as long as eight minutes to convey an idea such as, ``Well, here I am!''

The performer conveys this by moving slowly around the stage making traditional mime-style motions to the accompaniment of an orchestra playing traditional Chinese instruments that sound, to the ignorant Western ear, like an untuned piano being attacked by beavers. Every so often the orchestra makes a loud noise that sounds like, quote, ''SPROING,'' and at that instant the performer suddenly stops and stares directly at the audience with an expression of what appears to be astonishment, as if to say, ``Wow! You are still here!''

When the performers sing, electronic signboards next to the stage show English translations of the lyrics, but this is not all that helpful for following the plot. For example, one of the works I saw was called (really) The Great Immortal Herb Robbery. The main character, a woman who is also (although I may have this wrong) a snake, sings, in a voice pitched high enough to alarm dogs as far away as Peru, ''On the dragon boat festival, I drank too much.'' Then, after miming around some more, she sings, ''I won't return home unless I get the immortal herbs.'' Then, as you have probably already guessed, she gets into a stick fight with the crane-boys and the deer-boys.

The fight was pretty good. I know it's not my place to make suggestions to another culture, but if the Beijing Opera people would include more stick-fighting, cut way down on the miming and singing, and maybe at the last minute have the Kung Fu teapot dudes run onstage and save the snake lady by blasting the crane-boys and the deer-boys with the Twin Pour of Death, they would really have something.

I want to stress that, aside from the opera, I am totally loving China. The people remain unbelievably nice and polite and helpful and patient with us clueless visitors. And Beijing is prettier than I expected, when you can see it through the pollut. . . excuse me, the ``haze.''

Even the weather has improved some, possibly thanks to the Chinese government, which has a huge weather-modification program. According to the official newspaper, China Daily, on the night of the Olympic opening ceremony, a storm system was heading toward Beijing, so ``meteorological departments shot 1,104 rockets into the sky, relieving the ceremony of a most-feared threat.''

That's right: the Chinese government controls the weather. This might explain why, during the U.S.-China men's basketball game, Kobe Bryant was hit four times by lightning.

I'm kidding: It was only twice. The U.S. team kicked butt anyway. Aside from basketball, there are a number of other sports going on here at the Olympics, and in the coming days I'll try, time permitting, to provide you with updates. Right now, however, I need to locate some immortal herbs, because last night I definitely drank too much at the dragon boat festival.

©2008 Dave Barry

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