Chinese acrobats are justifiably world-famous, their international reputation cemented in no small part by the Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe, formed in 1951. While the troupe, one of the world's best, frequently tours internationally, it also performs at home, and an acrobatic show has become one of the most popular evening entertainment for tourists. These days, the juggling, contortionists, unicycling, chair-stacking, and plate-spinning have entered the age of modern staging; performances are beginning to resemble the high-tech shows of a Las Vegas-style variety act.
Shanghai has its own troupe that performs Beijing opera (Jing Xi) regularly at the Yifu Theatre. Beijing opera is derived from 8 centuries of touring song and dance troupes, but became institutionalized in its present form in the 1700s under the Qing Dynasty. The stylized singing, costumes, acrobatics, music, and choreography of Chinese opera often strike uninitiated foreigners as rather screechy and incomprehensible. It helps to know the plot (usually a historical drama with a tragic outcome), which most Chinese do. Songs are performed on a five-note scale (not the eight-note scale familiar in the West), and gongs, cymbals, and string and wind instruments accompany the action on the stage. Faces are painted with colors symbolizing qualities such as valor or villainy, and masks and costumes announce the performer's role in society, from emperor to peasant. Most Beijing opera these days consists of abridgements, lasting 2 hours or less (as opposed to 5 hr. or more in the old days). With martial arts choreography, spirited acrobatics, and brilliant costumes, these performances can be a delight even to the unaccustomed, untrained eye. Regional operas, including the Kunju form, are also performed in Shanghai. Kunju, which originated near Shanghai in the old city of Kunshan, is the oldest form of opera in China, and Shanghai has China's leading troupe. This opera tradition uses traditional stories and characters, as does Beijing opera, but it is known for being more melodic.
Other Performance Venues
Shanghai is the site of major national and international music, drama, and dance performances nearly every day of the year. The most frequent venues are listed here. In addition, local and international dramatic productions are often mounted at the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre, Anfu Lu 288, Xuhui (tel. 021/6433-5133), and at the Shanghai Theatre Academy, Huashan Lu 630, Jing An (tel. 021/6248-2920, ext. 3040), where experimental plays are sometimes presented.
Symphony Enters Its third Century -- The Shanghai Symphony was founded in 1879 to entertain the colonialists, taipans, and other Westerners in the city's International Settlement and French Concession. Known then as the Shanghai Municipal Band, it was the first such music group in China. Over the decades, the Shanghainese people embraced it, and Shanghai has produced many world-class classical musicians. After 1900, German Rudolf Buck was its conductor; after World War I, the Italian Mario Paci took over. During World War II, the symphony suspended operations. In 1956, performances resumed; it has held more than 3,000 concerts, produced tapes and CDs, and performed across Europe and North America (including at Carnegie Hall in 1990). Today, it's often judged to be the best in China.
Shanghai's pre-revolutionary (before 1949) jazz legacy has been revived for the 21st century: Not only are the old standards being played once again, but more modern and improvisational sounds can also be heard around town, and there's a greater influx of international jazz artists to these shores than ever before. Hotel lounges and bars are the most obvious venues for jazz performances, though what you get here is mostly easy-listening jazz. Once a year, the jazz scene perks up with the Shanghai Jazz Festival in mid-October, which draws headline artists and groups from America, Europe, Japan, and Australia. During the rest of the year, live jazz can be heard at the reviewed entries.