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Beijing Opera in search of an audience

By Pushpa Adhikari, Asia Times, 29 July 1999

BEIJING - When Mao Zedong launched his rectification program in 1942, it sent tremors through China's arts scene, which had been traditionally diverse, ranging from classical poetry and novels to traditional landscape painting to the Beijing Opera.

Mao's idea at the time was to ensure that literature and art fit well into the whole of the revolutionary machine as a component part, in effect making the purpose of culture not to enlighten or entertain but to spread political propaganda. Indeed, many opera troupes were established in the army to cultivate revolutionary ideas among soldiers through the popular style of Beijing Opera.

Now the country's traditional arts are suffering from a different kind of cultural revolution. As China prepares for a new century after decades of economic progress and dramatic changes in the lifestyles of its people, traditional arts have been suffering due to the lack of audience support.

Chinese youth, comprising more than 50 percent of the country's more than one billion population, prefer just about anything else to traditional art forms, as long as it is modern. Painted faces, lifted eyes and eyebrows, traditional clothes, high-pitched singing, orderly gestures and a lot of noise - these are the rather dubious attractions of Beijing Opera in the eyes of many young Chinese.

These same Chinese, however, will not hesitate to say they do not understand anything about Beijing Opera. But to those who are in early fifties, Beijing Opera is their heartbeat; it expresses their sentiment and narrates their true-life stories.

At almost every stage of cultural and political change in China prior to 1978, the Beijing Opera was one of the main tools used to cultivate ideas in society.

The Beijing Opera's origins date back to 1790, when four local opera troupes from Ahhui province came to Beijing to give performances at the Qing court. In 1828, they started to stage joint performances with the local opera troupes from Hubei Province at the Qing court. They were influenced by Beijing's local dialect and drawing and the artistic styles and expressions of other local operas, particularly singing.

Over a 20-year period, these joint performances developed into a new form of opera with distinctive features, now known as Beijing Opera, during the reign of Emperor Xianfeng in the second half of the 18th century.

The traditional Beijing Opera school first appeared in the late Qing dynasty, with the founding in 1904 of the Xiliancheng Beijing Opera School. Many talented Beijing Opera actors taught at the school, which produced different groups of students as well.

After the founding of the new China in 1949, modern Beijing Opera schools were set up by the Chinese government, among which are the China Traditional Opera School, Beijing Traditional Opera School and the Shanghai Traditional Opera School.

Although the then artistic creations contained certain political themes, it was a good attempt to demonstrate modern life on the stage of Beijing Opera, admitted Zhang Juan from the China Academy of Arts.

According to Professor Zhang, Beijing Opera normally focused on historical stories. There are more than 1,300 traditional plays, of which 300 to 400 have been noticeably popular. The creation of modern plays in China started in the 1950s.

These days almost all Chinese provinces and large municipalities have their own traditional opera schools, but the number of students is declining yearly.

Beijing Opera is a complex form of performing art consisting of music, singing, recitations, dancing, fine art, martial art skills and acrobatics. Not only is the style of Beijing Opera all-encompassing, but the stage itself covers a diverse range of minimalist settings. In the traditional Chinese theater, the stage was extended to face the audience in three directions. This made possible its gross exaggeration and unique symbolism. While the stage is bare of scenery, the bodily movements of the performers or the holding of a prop indicates the backdrop of the play.

Xue Lin, a teacher at Beijing Traditional Opera School, says the time in which the play takes place is also dealt with in a free way. Indeed, the free handling of change in time and backdrop is an outstanding feature of Beijing Opera. For instance, a long journey is sufficiently represented by the actor's circling the stage just once, and a few knocks of the night bell signify the long night.

The plot structure of Beijing Opera is often characterized as linking the pearls with a thread. The thread refers to the general plot of the play and the pearls refer to its specific scenes.

Because singing is a key component of Beijing Opera, some would argue the key component, in the old days theatregoers used to talk about listening to a performance instead of watching one. The melodies of Beijing Opera are designed on fixed patterns directed by the use of clappers.

Of the future of Beijing Opera, the teacher Xue Lin says the problem of personnel is the cause of the current decline of Beijing Opera. She says the success of Beijing Opera depends on good performers, memorable tunes and a good story. While there are plenty of good performers at present, not many people to create new tunes and stories.

Zhang also sees problems in the current talent system, which he says does not allow flow of the talent through competition. Social atmosphere and economic basis are two other elements affecting the development of Beijing Opera, he says.

How to create enthusiasm for Beijing Opera among the youth of a modern China is another challenge. Beijing Opera must sucessfully compete in a market economy and with a preoccupation with a get-rich-quick lifestyle.

It is very difficult to demonstrate modern life through the ancient theatrical art of Beijing Opera, says Opera director Yu Yukun. He says that in addition to the singing, the charm of the Opera lies also in its unique facial makeup, costumes, stage props and performing style. Therefore, ancient scenes and characters are the bases of this theatrical art, creating complications in its adaptation to modern styles - something that Opera fans do not always encourage or appreciate.

Modern Beijing Opera plays cannot use traditional facial makeup, costumes and stage props, so the original flavor of Beijing Opera would always be missing. Beijing Opera watchers have started believing that modern Beijing Opera is nothing but a mixture of modern opera and drama, incorporating the singing of Beijing Opera.

When Beijing Opera is performed with modern themes, it will lose the spirit of the real Beijing Opera; this reality must be kept in mind by both directors and performers, noted Zhao Jun, a Beijing Opera fan.

(Inter Press Service)