China seeks a modern voice for traditional opera

A high-powered campaign aims to revive dramas that are losing their app eal to the tv generation, reports teresa Poole from Peking
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The Independent Online
When George Bernard Shaw visited China in 1933, he requested a meeting with Mei Lanfang and asked the great master of Peking Opera why the noisy drums and gong were necessary. Mei explained that traditionally an opera was performed in the open air and the drums and gong were used to attract the audience.

attracting modern audiences for one of the world's longest operatic traditions is more of a challenge. Peking Opera - a highly stylised combination of high-pitched singing, recitation, dancing, acrobatics and martial arts skills - experienced a revival after the Cultural Revolution. But in recent years television, cinema, karaoke, and rock have done more long-term damage. more young people watched the film Farewell My Concubine, the story of two Peking Opera stars , than would want to see the opera of the same name.

Concerned that China's most traditional dramatic art form is in terminal decline, the Ministry of Culture has launched three weeks of national celebrations to mark the 100th anniversary of the births of Mei and Zhou Xinfang, China's two greatest opera masters. To demonstrate concern at the highest level, Li Ruihuan, one of the seven men who sit at the top echelon of the party Politburo, is chairing the committee in charge. Mei, who died in 1961, was famous for playing beautiful women, while Zhou , who lived until 1975, usually played heroes. The officially-sponsored feast of traditional Peking Operas will include many of their favourites, including Legend of Concubine Yang Yuhuan, Returning the Phoenix to its Nest, and The Fisherman's Revenge.

Everyone agrees something needs to be done to ensure the art's survival. Most Peking operas date back more than 200 years. Some attempt has been made at this festival to present new works. Five Leaved Chaste Tree is based on a true story about a young village primary school teacher. Jia Shen Ji concerns the reasons for the defeat of Li Zicheng, leader of the peasant uprising that overthrew the Ming Dynasty in 1644 but then succumbed to the Qing armies.

If the plot lines lack pace, Peking Opera has at least bowed to the average attention span in the electronic age; performances used to run over five hours but theatres now show two-hour versions.

"The opera has to adapt to the rhythm of life," said Stuart Kingston, a Briton who has spent the past three years studying how to play the "civilian" clown role in Peking Opera.

The omens are not good. Last year, the city's most famous Peking Opera house, the 1,000-seat Jixiang Theatre, closed to make way for a commercial development. For 87 years, the finest performers had trod its boards, including Mei. Opera celebrities protested against the proposed new venue - a 300-seat theatre in a modern block.

There are seven performing Peking opera troupes and three training schools where would-be Mei Lanfangs start from 10. At the academy attached to the flagship China Opera Institute, students are experimenting within the traditional stylised structure, using contemporary storylines and costumes to make the art form more accessible. Mr Kingston said: "Unfortunately, because they are seen only as academic works, part of a process of learning, these pieces are rarely seen by the wider Peking Opera public."

While the form remains constrained by tradition, the media have tried to deliver Peking opera to new audiences. karaoke discs are available, and songs have been adapted for television with a disco beat, but in the Chinese hit parade Canto-pop still has the edge.