Before there was cinema, there was opera, the first artistic form to combine the elements that Hollywood now takes for granted. Opera melds music and drama, comedy and romance, pathos and spectacle. Still, even at its most bombastic, the Western style of opera lacks something that cinematic blockbusters can’t do without: action.

That’s what separates the various styles of Chinese opera—Beijing, Cantonese, and other regional variations within China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong—not only from Verdi and Wagner but also from such Asian traditions as Japan’s Kabuki and Noh theater and Bali’s Baris dances. Musically, of course, the latter are more closely linked to each other than to the products of 19th-century Europe’s opera houses. But only China’s acrobatic opera, which the Beijing Kunju Opera Theatre brings to Montgomery College’s Robert E. Parilla Performing Arts Center on Sunday, has the exuberant animal grace that’s best known to the West through the work of Jackie Chan.

In fact, Beijing Opera underlies many of the plots and styles of Hong Kong and mainland Chinese film, and not just because the central characters in such movies as Farewell, My Concubine are opera performers. Chan and many other Hong Kong performer-directors—including his classmate Sammo Hung—grew up as wards of HK’s Peking Opera School, where they experienced harsh conditions and rigorous training. Being a student at such a school is so demanding that the experience itself became the subject of a 1988 HK film, Painted Faces, in which Hung plays a teacher in a story based on his and Chan’s childhood. “It takes three years to train a scholar and 10 years to train an actor,” explains Hung’s character of the exacting education, which yields performers who can not only act, sing, and dance but also leap, flip, and tumble.

Scenes from Beijing and Cantonese Opera appear frequently in Hong Kong films, many of which are backstage dramas, and also provide some of the movies’ recurrent themes: action, romance, and ghost stories. Still, HK cinema borrows from many Western sources, notably Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone, and Martin Scorsese (in the works of John Woo), and Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton (in the works of Jackie Chan). Indeed, as much as Chinese-language film is indebted to Chinese opera, it is also its competition. Although traditional opera has a much larger audience in China than analogous art forms in Europe and North America, its survival is threatened by movies, TV, and pop music.

In the West, Beijing Opera is most often glimpsed through its influence on film. Full performances of operas are rare. Even the occasional appearance by a touring group, such as the Beijing Kunju Opera Theatre, usually offers only a tasting menu of the form. Rather than perform a full work, this weekend the troupe will offer excerpts from four operas: The Journey to the West, Zhong Kui Marries Off His Sister, The Crossroads, and The Peony Pavilion.

Written in the same period as Romeo and Juliet, well before the full development of Chinese opera, The Peony Pavilion is also a tale of star-crossed lovers, albeit one that’s more spooky than tragic. Considered the finest work of 16th-century playwright Tang Xianzu, the opera is rarely performed in its entirety, in part because it’s long—55 scenes—but its influence remains widespread in Chinese art. (A Taiwanese film that updates the story to contemporary times showed at the National Gallery in 1997.) To Western audiences, however, The Peony Pavilion’s brand of romanticism may seem a bit morbid. The opera is the tale of a young woman who falls asleep in a garden pavilion and dreams of making love to a scholar; when she awakes to find herself alone, she dies of longing for the man she has met only in her dream. Later, the scholar falls in love with a portrait of the woman and has her coffin opened to find her alive and waiting for him. (There’s much more to the story, but the setup is the kinkiest part.)

For a novice, following the narrative of a Chinese opera is difficult, much as it is with other highly stylized forms, both Eastern and Western. The stories are told as much through dance, mime, and song as through dialogue, and are generally so familiar to the audience that they can be conveyed symbolically rather than literally. The colors of the costumes, for example, convey character: yellow for royalty, red for important officials, green for virtue, black for threatening. The patterns painted on faces also reveal roles. (Despite the elaborate costuming, Chinese opera is traditionally performed on spare sets—another example of Asian art’s taste for joining the sumptuous and the simple.)

Chinese opera’s stylization is characteristic of many traditional theatrical forms, but it also has contemporary resonance. In Beijing Opera, for example, gender is entirely a matter of construction. The young female (dan) roles are portrayed through delicate, stylized movements and chirpy, high-pitched vocals that sound highly unnatural to Western ears. They needn’t be played, however, by women. As long as the conventions are followed, the character will be understood as female. There are also Chinese opera actresses who play male (sheng) roles, although they are rarer.

Like many performance styles whose formality makes them seem ancient, Beijing Opera is not really so old. Its beginning is generally dated to 1790, when four troupes from the southern province of Anhui arrived in the capital. The form’s greatest challenge came during the Cultural Revolution, which banned Chinese opera and replaced it with the Maoist “Eight Model Plays” extolling anti-imperialist and class struggles. The 12-year prohibition ruptured Chinese opera’s audience, and the style no longer has the universal appeal it once did in Chinese society. For that loss, of course, Steven Spielberg is probably as much to blame as Chairman Mao.

Still, Chinese opera developed a syncretistic, crowd-pleasing style well before Edison and Lumiere. The high-pitched warbling and the clashing cymbals of the Beijing Kunju Opera Theatre may seem alien, but the best way to approach Chinese opera may be in its original spirit: as fun for the whole family. CP

Beijing Kunju Opera Theatre performs Feb. 6 at Montgomery College’s Robert E. Parilla Performing Arts Center.