Shen Yen: Chinese Opera or Agitprop Theatre?-1

Shen Yun is back in Sydney! I’m so excited, I’ve actually got tickets this time around. I’ve been wanting to go for a few years now but I have somehow missed out. Visuals of it are lavish: the colour, the pageantry, the orchestra, the dancers, the singers and its huge cast. Can it be Chinese Opera? I’ve studied Asian Theatre but have never attended a live performance of the Chinese Opera.  Most provinces in China have their own state funded Opera but it would be a rare occasion for one of these companies to perform outside of China. Shen Yun, as represented in its marketing pamphlets, CD and website, shares attributes with Chinese Opera.

A large cast performs in front of a backdrop of intricate detail and grandiose proportions.


Chinese Opera Burns! /Foter/ CC BY-NC-SA

Music is an important part of the storytelling. Shen Yun has a mixed orchestra delivering a fusion of traditional Chinese sounds and Occidental instruments.

Musical accompaniment
Stanley Zimny (Thank You for 10 Million views) / Foter / CC BY-NC

Detailed costumes, nuanced props and iconic make-up make up Chinese Opera’s ostentatious delivery. So too, in Shen Yun.

Chinese Opera performer
alcuin lai / Foter / CC BY-SA

But will there be a bit of this?

The Traitor – stock character, Chinese Opera ( photo credit see end of post)

Just a little? This much? A little bit of mythology? A little bit of acting? A parley of speech and movement not delivered in song? A parley for the sake parley!


Actors from the Chinese Opera
alcuin lai / Foter / CC BY-SA

Errrrrhhhh …can’t exactly say.

Well, I asked the ticket seller whether it was Chinese Opera.

“No, it’s from New York.”

That wasn’t the answer that I was expecting. I wanted to know if it was of the traditional form of Chinese Opera. The one with big acting, acrobatics and magico-real storylines. If each province of China has its own company, then it would follow that ex-pat Chinese who operate in a ex-pat Chinese community are capable of producing a Chinese Opera outside of China. So I asked another lame question.

“Does it tell a story?”

Hmm. There was a pause. Of course it tells a story. Of course it tells a story! So does Swan Lake, the ballet. There are no monkey-warriors with supernatural powers or comic servant figures delivered in big, stylized performances in Swan Lake. There is no subtext to ponder over as you leave the theatre after the ballet.

So I started telling my Chinese friends, acquaintances and neighbours that I was going to see Shen Yun. I wanted to know if they had been and if it is Chinese Opera. I was taken aback by the balance of responses I received to what was genuinely, an innocent question. I had no idea that I was asking a political question, a question that led to more on the nature and use of propaganda, human organ harvesting and the use of theatre as a tool of social revolution and social mollification.

What the ….! What the next Crafty Theatre post will be about!

Shen Yun opens at the Capitol Theatre in Sydney on Feb 6, having already played the Gold Coast it will continue its Australian tour. For tour tickets click here.

Have you seen Crafty Theatre’s Chinese Opera board on Pinterest?

The Traitor

Photo credit: jackyczj / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

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