DECLINE OF CHINESE OPERA
English subtitles During the Cultural Revolution, Mao's wife Jiang Qing almost singlehandedly destroyed 200 years of Chinese opera traditions by forcing actors to don workers uniforms and allowing only eight commentary "model operas" about class and imperialist struggle to be staged. Opera stars who didn't like her ideas were forced to do lighting and play minor roles.
The audience for Peking Opera is declining at a rate if about 5 percent a year. There are no schools left devoted exclusively to Peking Opera, and shows are often lightly attended even when tickets are given out free. The art form is in danger of vanishing completely within a generation. Beijing once had dozens of theaters and teahouses that staged full-length operas nearly every night of the week. Each of the cities 18 districts had its own performing troupe. These day only local repertory companies remains.
Hugang Theater in Beijing has one show a week, on Saturday morning, for elderly fans. Most of the shows performed at the theater are for tourists or visiting officials. Even though the Hugang theater receives both private and government funding it still loses money, and even though university students and other groups are given free admission, many of the seats for performances are empty.
Tickets to a Peking Opera performance today cost between 30-1,000 yuan (US$4-140). But there have been incidents in recent years where even free shows have failed to attract a full house. Before performances staged for tourists, the audience is sometimes allowed into the dressing room to watch the actors put on their make up. One actor told the Los Angeles Times they laugh and take pictures and make him “feel like an animal I a zoo.”
In recent years Beijing Opera has been reduced to the heavily subsidized fare of state television. The average Peking Opera performer can hope for a monthly salary of 2,000 yuan. In Beijing, this is less than a driver employed by a household often earns. In survey more than 50 percent of the respondents said that a plan by the education ministry to introduce a new program to generate interest in Peking Opera was a waste of money.
Chinese opera is primarily a victim of television, films, pop music, karaokes and other forms of popular entertainment. Another factor is the fact that it has changed little in 200 years and subject matter and strange singing style are simply too esoteric for most people. One performer said, “The whole thing is very slow. It not like a movie, and right now people want things to be fast. That why we’re losing the young crowd. “
Beijing Opera is also falling victim to urban development as the neighborhood theaters, where it has traditionally been performed are being torn down. A teacher told the Asian Times, he attributed the decline in interest to the global phenomenon of tension between the classical and the modern. “Everywhere young people prefer pop music and American culture to traditional art,” he said. “Where China is different is in the fact that we also lost our audience for the traditional arts for 10 years during the Cultural Revolution. So this added fuel to the fire of a natural loss of interest resulting from globalization."
Efforts to Revitalize Chinese Opera
Former Chinese President Jiang Zemin was a big opera fan and supporter of a government effort to restore interest in Chinese opera. Under his encouragement, the Committee to Revitalize Peking Opera sponsored festivals and competitions, state-run television regularly broadcast episodes of classic performances. To attract tourists and younger audience the new Chang An Great Theater shortened 3-hour operas to 70 minutes and added special affects, elaborate sets and acrobatics routines---a move that angered many opera purists.
The opera-appreciation drive still has a long way to go. The China Peking Opera troupe, one of the country's top repertory companies, receives only $500,000 a year from the Chinese government towards its total budget of $1 million. By contrast the annual budget of the Los Angeles opera is $16 million. Money isn’t only problem. Students who have taken opera appreciation courses, have said their understanding of opera grew but they still didn't like it.
In November 2007, a new 1,100 seat venue built exclusively for Peking Opera, the Meilanfang Grand Theater, opened in Beijing . Named after the famous actor, it hopes to rekindle an interest in the traditional art form with aggressive advertising campaigns, cheap tickets and stories updated to appeal to modern audiences.
“The Chinese Ministry of Culture, anxious about the form survival, lavishly subsidizes it, renovating theaters, commissioning new works, paying substantial salaries to the bearers of the tradition, like Qiao. In 2009, for the first time ever, the state-run Chinese Central Television has been holding a national Beijing opera student competition, with the finals to be televised in October.” [Source: Richard Bernstein, the International Herald Tribune, August 29, 2010]
“During the preliminaries in Beijing recently, 24 contestants, each with a supporting cast of extremely acrobatic soldiers and others, took the stage in an awesome display of skill and talent. The emphasis was on what a nonconnoisseur might think of as the best parts the battle and martial arts scenes, with performers in astonishing costumes leaping and somersaulting in midair, twirling, jabbing, tossing and juggling an arsenal of weapons and batons, singing at the same time. “
Peking Opera in Public Schools
Pallavi Aiyar wrote in the Asia Times, “The four girls standing at the head of the classroom in the Beijing Second Experimental Primary School quiver with earnestness. As they sing out phrases their teacher encouragingly claps her hands to keep rhythm. To the uninitiated they sound a bit like small animals yelping in pain. But they are in the process of performing a sophisticated albeit dying art form that has long been iconic of Chinese civilization - Peking Opera. [Source: Pallavi Aiyar, Asia Times, July 19, 2008] “In a bid to save the opera from graying into obscurity, China's Ministry of Education recently announced a pilot project in which 200 primary schools across 10 provinces are to include Peking Opera as part of their music curriculum. }
“The kids might not be able to become experts in Peking Opera from a single class a week, but the idea is to help them appreciate rather than perform,” said Feng Hong, the vice principal at Beijing Second Experimental Primary School. Her voice is drowned by the high-pitched keening of the girls who continue to sing at the head of the class. Next door is a boys' training session. They are rehearsing a model opera describing the heroic deeds of communist guerillas fighting invading Japanese forces.”
“The 20-odd gathered boys sing loudly, volume seemingly at a greater premium than skill. But they obviously enjoy the session, the majority of them screwing up their eyes in concentration. Ten-year-old Liu Shang Chen, who asked to be called “Jack”, said he became interested in Peking Opera a year ago when his parents took him to see a performance. He loved it even though his parents themselves are not particularly enthusiastic about the art form.”
“I think Peking Opera is a really important part of Chinese culture,” said Jack, his rosy cheeks glowing with sincerity. Asked if he prefers model operas to traditional ones, he quickly nods in the affirmative. “My favorite ones are anti-Japanese operas because the stories are so heroic and I want to be brave like the heroes who fight the Japanese,” he said. Chang Zi Guang, who goes by the name “Andy”, begs to differ. Also 10 years old, Andy said he likes classical operas more because “they are more beautiful.” Do Andy's friends think him weird for having chosen this particular elective? “Yes, some friends don't like Peking Opera. They think it's odd. But I don't care because I really like it,” he answered.
Resistance to Peking Opera in Public Schools
But instead of being welcomed, the proposal has proved to be surprisingly controversial, meeting with a cold response from teachers and parents. According to the ministry, the aim of the new initiative is to “help students better appreciate Chinese culture and cultivate patriotism”. However, only 27 percent of some 21,000 respondents to an opinion poll conducted by popular Internet portal Sina.com believed the project would help promote traditional Chinese culture. [Source: Pallavi Aiyar, Asia Times, July 19, 2008]
Many parents argue that Peking Opera is too difficult to learn in any meaningful way for primary school children who are already burdened with an excess of exams. Other criticism have centered on the lack of expertise of music teachers in schools. “If the teachers themselves hardly know anything about Peking Opera, what can they be expected to teach students?” read one posting on an Internet blog.
The real controversy, however, hinges on the fact that the majority of the 15 operas selected by the Ministry of Education for the project consist of what are known as “model” Maoist works popular in the Cultural Revolution---as opposed to classical operas.
Peking Opera Competition
"Pass me the eyebrow pencil," shouts Lan Gongxin as she prepares for a Peking Opera gala at the capital's National Stadium, in mid-September. "I look good, right?" the 27-year-old singer asks the makeup artist and then asks her to take a picture on her smart phone. She's dressed in a Hello Kitty T-shirt and is getting her hair done. Behind her, other young Peking Opera performers are going through their makeup routines, putting on their costumes and warming up their voices. [Source: Chen Nan, China Daily, October 26, 2011]
Zhou Enxu, a 21-year-old singer, sits on a wooden box wearing black headphones, listening to some tunes on his iPod while he waits for curtain call. At 7:30 pm, the gala opens and hundreds of performers from China's major cities take to the stage, armed with lances and swords, to perform elaborately choreographed and acrobatic fight scenes.
There's the clash of cymbals, drums, wooden clappers and a substantial orchestra of Chinese strings and woodwind instruments. It's a big night for young artists to show off their skills at Beijing Peking Opera Theater's The Charm of Spring talent contest. It's the final of the first ever Peking Opera competition, for which regional selection started in March.
"I am glad there are so many great youngsters to carry on the Peking Opera tradition," says 76-year-old professor Xie Zhaiyong. "I have listened to Peking Opera every day since I was 20. For me, it's more fun than any TV program," Xie says, while his 7-year-old grandson beside him imitates the swordfights on stage. When the curtain falls, performers gather backstage to remove their costumes and makeup, discuss each other's performances and joke around.
While many of the youngsters make plans about where to go out and celebrate, Lan Gongxin waits for her husband, Yang Shaopeng, a 35-year-old singer, who won the Best Lao Sheng Award (Peking Opera's older male role) at the gala. They have to get up early the next morning for another round of rehearsals.
Performers at the Beijing Peking Opera Theater
Beijing Peking Opera Theater was founded in 1979 and has been the principal stage for many renowned Peking Opera masters, including Ma Liangliang, Tan Fuying and Zhang Junqiu. The modest theater in the south of Beijing has long, dark corridors daubed with old slogans like, "One minute on stage represents 10 years of hard work off stage". "It's old but full of history," says Lan Gongxin, who was born and raised in Qingdao, Shandong province. She was encouraged by her father to learn Peking Opera and started performing aged 4. She later studied at Qingdao Peking Opera Troupe and then the National Academy of Chinese Theater Arts. [Source: Chen Nan, China Daily, October 26, 2011]
As a dan performer, Lan says she had to do voice training in the early morning, plus basic physical training such as somersaults, splits and handstands. "I was often tied to a pillar in the classroom for about 40 minutes to do a headstand. Oh my god, I was so scared," she says, her eyes widening at the recollection. "I love the lyrics of Peking Opera because of the different stories and histories they tell," Lan says. "A few words can vividly depict a person." Lan's favorite role is Hong Niang, the matchmaker, from Romance of the West Chamber. It was her graduating performance role, after which she joined Beijing Peking Opera Theater, aged 20. It was here that she met her husband, who comes from a family of Peking Opera performers.
Without his makeup and costume, her husband Yang is handsome and fashionable, dressed in a black T-shirt and blue jeans. Born and raised in Tianjin, Yang's father was a tough teacher. "He was very strict and beat me," Yang recalls. "I practiced for hours every day and I often cried." His idea of fun was playing with the swords and practicing kungfu. His childhood dream was to be like Bruce Lee. "There were lots of Peking Opera masks on the walls of our house. I often wore them and imagined I was in a battle," he says.
Following in his father's footsteps, Yang later joined Beijing Peking Opera Theater. At rehearsals for Wu Zixu, performed during the National Holiday at Meilanfang Grand Theater, Yang plays the eponymous lead role, a three-hour performance during which he sings and shows off his kungfu skills. "His performance still needs polishing," says Yang's father, the 70-year-old Peking Opera master Yang Naipeng, who was attending rehearsals. "The eyes, the poses and even a few footsteps need to be more refined. Practice is required."
Yang Naipeng became a Peking Opera student at 4, under the master Yang Baozhong, also a renowned erhu player. He said there were no schools then and he learned his craft traveling around the country with this teacher. It was an era when there was little other form of entertainment but Peking Opera. "There were no distractions for me. My whole life was Peking Opera," he says. "The more you know it, the more you love it." "Nothing represents Chinese culture more than Peking Opera. Everything in it has been carefully thought out and regulated, even the timing when audiences shout hao! (good) after a well-executed movement or song," he says.
His concern is that, like the city's old neighborhoods, Peking Opera will also disappear. This is partly why Beijing Peking Opera Theater chief Li Enjie initiated The Charm of Spring competition, to promote the art to the masses. He's comforted that youngsters like Peking Opera, despite new media and other distractions, and notes the theater gives up to 500 performances a year around the country of both classic and new works. "It's no longer a popular art form, like pop music is right now, but we still get the applause," Li says.
Bai Xianyong and Peony Pavilion
Bai Xianyong's love affair began when he was 9. It was 1946, and he went to see the Kunqu opera Peony Pavilion and was enthralled to watch Mei Lanfang play play Du Liniang. More than six decades later, Bai is a retired literature teacher, and his appreciation for Mei's performance and his affection for the beautiful tale show no sign of waning. As an amateur of the art then, Bai never thought he would one day introduce Peony Pavilion to the rest of the world. Bai, who taught at the University of California, found himself promoting the play for almost eight years after he adapted the masterpiece of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) master playwright Tang Xianzu (1550-1616) in 2004. [Source: Su Zhou, China Daily, January 6, 2012]
The new Peony Pavilion edition is called the youth edition because the performers are younger and it is targeted at youngsters with an abridged three episodes in nine hours. First staged in Taiwan, the youth edition has toured the mainland, Hong Kong, the US, Britain, Greece and Singapore. The 200th youth edition was staged at the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing in December 2011.
Bai was born into what was considered an "aristocratic class" in China. His father was the famous Kuomingtang general Bai Chongxi. Bai himself quit writing for many years for Kunqu. "Mr Bai was always described as a 'melancholy pioneer'," says Wu Dan, a fan of Bai's work in Jiangsu province. "Before he devoted himself to Kunqu, he seldom appeared in the media and didn't express himself that much."
But that changed after 2004. Every time he appeared in the media, Bai looked very happy and spoke more about his outlook on life. To prepare for the youth edition of Peony Pavilion, Bai traveled around California, Suzhou, Taiwan and Hong Kong, negotiating with different people, raising funds for performances, inviting famous Kunqu experts to train his team, and even teaching potential audiences in China's universities.
"I am a 'preacher' now," Bai says. "But if it can help people realize the beauty of Kunqu, I am willing to do so. Bai thinks people will be interested in Kunqu again if they can see the most beautiful play. "The younger generation of China, as well as Chinese compatriots abroad, lack the identity of traditional culture," Bai says. "In 1987 I was excited to see Kunqu still on stage in Shanghai after the 'cultural revolution' (1966-76). It is great to witness the rebirth of traditional culture on the mainland; more people should share my joy. "Western countries are all familiar with Chinese martial arts and acrobatics. Now I want to show them the graceful art of China."
From the start, Bai set two goals for himself and his team: Peony Pavilion has to attract more young students to see Kunqu, and Kunqu needs to be promoted in foreign countries. Traditional Kunqu opera tends to select more experienced and senior actors. But Bai chose young actors and radically adopted modern lighting and stage design.
Yu Jiulin and Shen Fengying, performing hero Liu Mengmei and heroine Du Liniang, respectively, were unknown performers. "Yu is very handsome and scholarly; Shen has telling eyes," Bai says. "In such a beautiful dream, it is possible for young audiences to sit there for nine hours with such a beautiful love story." To train the two youngsters, Bai invited two famous Kunqu performers Zhang Jiqing and Wang Shiyu, as art directors. During the intervals, Bai liked to explain a part or a scene of Peony Pavilion to them.
"I remember that before the initial performance, Mr Bai talked about his understanding of Peony Pavilion with us in the hotel," Yu says. "He talked about the permanent theme of human beings through hundreds of years: the pursuit of love, youth and life. "Peony Pavilion is not only a love story but also a song for lost youth," Yu adds. "Mr Bai's elaboration helped us express the subtle feelings of the characters." Bai's love of Kunqu is also seen in his perfectionism. During the rehearsal of the youth edition of Peony Pavilion, Bai kept adapting the scripts, the design of stage and the customs. To display an exquisite show, Bai asked the flowers on customs to be all embroidered by hand, says Wang Tong, costume designer of the youth edition of Peony Pavilion. "It takes one day to embroider a single flower and the whole set of customs took us five months."
Jeffrey Zhang, a traditionally-trained Kunqu Chinese opera singer, is attempting to keep his art form alive by fusing it with more modern art forms such as jazz music. Born in 1975, he has been singing kunqu since he was 11 and is known for his collaborations---with pop stars, Japanese kabuki actors and even ballet dancers. [Source: NPR, Morning Edition, November 11, 2008]
“I'm very proud to be a kunqu singer,” Zhang said, but “Let's be honest: It's an art form that's facing extinction. It's an art form with a very small audience, just like those who buy Prada or Louis Vuitton. I want to bring it to more people, so they get the chance to form their own opinion on it. If they don't hear this art form, they'd never know if they like it or not.”
Zhang’s most intense interest has gone into combining his operatic arias with free-form jazz piano, as played by the Belgian pianist Jean-Francois Maljean. “I'm interested in every musical experience, and inspiration can come from there,” Zhang says. “And honestly---and we have to be honest---it's also a means to be introduced to a new audience.” Maljean says he had never heard of kunqu when first approached by his record company about the fusion experiment. At first, he says he found the idea a bit weird and didn't know how workable the collaboration would be. Both sides admit that it was not without its tensions.
Image Sources: Trisha Shadwood travel blog
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated March 2012