Broken Voice, Broken Heart

Cheng Yanqiu (1904-1958) was born to play the dan, or feminine role in Beijing Opera. Willowy and graceful, he made it through puberty with nary a crack in his sweet soprano pipes. While western teens in similar circumstances would have suffered taunting for such androgyny, Cheng enjoyed accolades, fame, and fortune. Shows in which he featured quickly sold out, and he had achieved coveted first-rank actor status in his troupe before the age of twenty.

tragic Chinese Opera StarThen one day, like a bolt of lightning from a jealous god, a flash fever struck him and robbed his voice. One can imagine his consternation, akin to Yao Ming’s if he awoke one morning a meter shorter. But true stars are generally made of sterner stuff than mere talent and luck. While his colleagues were advising him to become a hairdresser for other dan actors, or perhaps play the gong in processions, Cheng spent years seeking esoteric medical advice, drinking vile concoctions, and taking the most guarded and persistent steps to regain his voice. Eventually he could sing again, but his ethereal highest register was lost forever.

Putting a brave face on along with his stage paint, Cheng performed only in operas that called for merely feminine, rather than canine-auditory-range warbling. The crowds came flocking, but soon the public began demanding operas in which he had earned his fame, such as “Yingtai Refuses an Arranged Marriage”. Consigning himself to fate, Cheng gave in and once again attempted one of his signature roles. The crowd barely recognized him.With his troupe’s box office plummeting, Cheng undertook to arrange a European tour, but the hostilities that would lead to WWII put an end to that.

Like so many unfortunate actors before and after him, Cheng was a washed-up wreck before seeing his fortieth birthday. Of all the laurels, they say fame is the hardest to live without, especially one for whom being the center of attention is his raison d’etre. Cheng did not take his decline in fortunes gracefully, and played an everyday role of aging prima donna, the type immortalized by Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. Given to temper tantrums and petty grudges, he soon alienated the few true friends he had gained in the hyper-competitive world of Beijing Opera. His premature death is widely attributed to the stress and disappointment he felt at having a glorious career cut short by cruel fate. It all goes to show that while Hollywood struggles to give us new stars to devour, tragic actors have always been around.

This story originally appeared in

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