The quintessence of Chinese culture, Beijing Opera, early known as Peking Opera, is a must see while you are in Beijing, equivalent to seeing an opera in Italy.
Beijing Opera was formed nearly 200 years ago. It originated from Hui Ju of Anhui Province and later absorbed best parts of Han Xi, Qing Qiang, Kun Qiu and other local operas, and formed in Beijing, which is why it is called Jing Ju by Chinese.
Beijing Opera combines stylized acting of singing, dancing, musical dialogue, martial arts, facial makeup and attractive costumes. Its colorful facial makeup is fascinated for many foreign friends. In fact, the painting on performers' faces is not for its nice appearance, but to represent different characters. Red means loyal and brave, black represents powerful and wise, yellow and white stand for fierce and guile, blue and green show the characters of greenwood heroes, gold and silver indicate mysterious or super-natural.
The roles of Beijing Opera can be roughly divided into 4:
male role (Sheng)
female role (Dan)
painted face male (Jing)
comedy actor or clown (Chou)
Every role has its own facial makeup, decoration and costumes. Most Peking Operas are unintellingible to the untrained viewer, but they are usually based on folk tales, famous novels and fairy tales and are a pleasure to watch if you know the basic story. Some of the bigger theaters have subtitle message boards in English and Chinese so even if you don't know the story you can still follow along.
Mei Lanfang (1894-1961), perhaps the best known master ever, acted a Dan role. It is he who introduced Beijing Opera to western world. He acquired a global reputation and was regarded the leader of Pear Garden (the Chinese opera circle). His masterpieces include Farewell My Concubine (Ba Wang Bie Ji), The Drunken Concubine or Drunken Beauty (Gui Fei Zui Jiu), etc.
Although Chinese youths are more eager to listen to pop music than go to a Peking Opera, recently, there has been a mini-revival in the art form, and there are quite a few places to go and listen to Peking Opera. You can get a good taste of what Peking Opera is all about at the Liyuan Theater in the Qianmen Hotel, Chang'an Theater, Huguang Guildhall, which features nightly performances that are a medley of different operas. The shows are light on the singing and concentrate more on action like tumbling and martial arts and are therefore more foreigner-friendly.