Hearing The Opera: “Teahouse Mimesis” And The Aesthetics Of Noise In Early Jingju Recordings, 1890s–1910s

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Noise as an element evocative of teahouse atmosphere was part of the voice of opera in China at the turn of the twentieth century. As such, Chinese listeners embraced the talking machine wholeheartedly from the very beginning and reckoned with its musical force within the paradigm of high-class arts. We find an opposition in the early reception of the phonograph in the Western context in which concert-hall or opera-house performances encouraged the serious spirit of nineteenth-century musical romanticism. In this essay I list specific examples of teahouse theaters with phonographic musical accompaniment to early film. Such examples gleaned from newspapers do not appear consistently after the year 1910, suggesting that year may reasonably be considered a watershed in terms of the tentative endings of the symbiotic existence of phonographic music and live operatic performance. This special Chinese mindset paved the way for the gramophone to enter urban households as an “operatic singing machine.” I contend that the Chinese listening habit cultivated in the boisterous acoustic environment of teahouse theaters had prepared the Chinese opera buff to focus on the meaningful operatic voice against the sonic backdrop of the “ambient” noise, an aesthetic experience similar to listening to early opera records.


theater acoustics, gramophone, new media, Peking opera, Jingju, phonograph industry, musical recording, intermedial environments, theater architecture

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