Bi Feiyu’s The Moon Opera tosses readers headlong into the Peking Opera—an institution with a history as convoluted as the shows it puts on—on the threshold of recreating a work whose previous performances ended in disaster. The first time Chang’e Flies To The Moon was in rehearsal, its motives fell under political scrutiny; its post-Cultural Revolution revival was known for a brutal backstage attack in which the show’s 19-year-old star, Xiao Yanqiu, disfigured her rival. Twenty years later, a factory owner is willing to sponsor a revival, provided that Yanqiu, since banished to the classroom, returns to sing the lead role of Chang’e, a woman whose immortality prompts her to leave the earth forever. Yanqiu’s commitment to the role is unquestionable, but forced retirement has taken its toll, and she struggles to recreate the highlight of her career 20 years out.
Bi’s precise prose simultaneously constructs the gossip-prone world of the opera and conjures a larger allegorical framework in which Yanqiu and her fellow artists, who—from her hand-picked understudy, who longs to be on television, to the director, who suspects the factory owner’s motives—are scrambling for a piece of the new China. Some are never even given names, but are conjured up from vignettes of ordinary activities as they walk in the park or eat dinner. Bi is best known for writing the screenplay for Zhang Yimou’s 1995 film Shanghai Triad, but his dialogue in Moon Opera isn’t as strong as these wordless scenes from the lives of the troupe.
Yet The Moon Opera’s greatest challenge, and its most successful aspect, is its attempt to bypass these characters’ assigned roles, as unbending as the career parts in Chinese opera, and examine the society where they’re rooted. Even their most banal interactions are subject to authorial scrutiny that decodes the unspoken agendas in every phrase, probing under a decades-old wariness about speaking the truth. Bi softens his piercing asides about each of the characters with an arch tone focused at everything except the opera itself—a work of art whose only misfortune was to be handed to a troupe of mortals swayed by events outside their control. A fable that begs to be re-read, The Moon Opera is illuminating at every turn.