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Peking Opera hits wrong note for the masses

Art and the people: China is trying to win audiences back to a 200-year-old tradition, while
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The two-century-old genre of Peking Opera is considered one of the "national treasures" of China. But it is a treasure in trouble. Television and film have stolen the audiences, and no one is sure how to fight back against the technological age.

Peking Opera is a highly stylized art form, combining falsetto singing, recitation, loud drums and cymbals, and a storyline usually set about 2,000 years ago. Much emphasis is put on costumes, masks and heavy make- up, and most of the repertoire is made up of classics, with little scope for new interpretation. The dramas last up to five hours.

After being crushed by the Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976, Peking Opera staged a revival in the Eighties. But this decade it has suffered what the official China Daily newspaper described as a "dramatic drop in theatre attendance".

Hu Qiwen, working at the Zhengyici opera theatre, explained the problem. "People above 45 years old really appreciate Peking Opera, but most of them after they retire don't have much money. The rich ones in their twenties and thirties can spend more than 200 yuan (pounds 16) for a night in a disco, but the Peking Opera does not attract them." Package-holiday tourists are often the mainstay of audiences.

At the Ministry of Culture, an Office for Reviving Peking Opera has been set up. But supporters themselves are at odds over the solution. On the east side of the city is the most recently opened official showcase for the genre, the ministry's plush 800-seat Chang'An theatre, currently showing the Legend of the White Snake, complete with ultra-violet light, microphones, recorded backing music, new costumes, and heavy additions of acrobatics and dance. The White Snake, aided by the Green Snake, falls in love with Scholar Yu, is thwarted by a monk and rescued - all in 75 minutes. Tickets cost up to 180 yuan (pounds 14.40).

Pan Hongye, president of the Chang'An Cultural and Entertainment Centre, said: "To make Peking Opera develop and survive, we must reform it, taking into account the environment, the time, and the aesthetic taste of the audience." Mr Pan knows the competition. Rival attractions at the centre include a cinema showing a three-dimensional American horror film, an amusement hall, and 15 karaoke rooms for hire. The whole building was paid for by a Hong Kong property developer.

Over at the Zhengyici theatre, in a tiny alley west of Tiananmen Square, the owner, Wang Yuming, derides the attempts of Chang'An to rescue Peking Opera. Mr Wang, a 35-year-old entrepreneur, has spent 6 million yuan (pounds 480,000) of his own money lovingly restoring a 1712 all-wooden theatre to its former glory. He offers nightly performances of such classics as The Number One Scholar as Matchmaker, and the Empty City Stratagem. This is the authentic Qing dynasty experience recreated. "If you use modern techniques, Peking Opera loses its original flavour," Mr Wang said. "I talked with a lot of old people in their eighties, they said in the past there was not a lot of acrobatics and martial arts in the opera. Chang'An misleads foreigners," he accused.

Mr Wang's audience sits at traditional wooden tables and chairs, at 150 yuan (pounds 12) a ticket. His only sop to modern taste is to stage his operas in 90-minute versions, and to offer American almonds and Taiwanese potato chips with the tea. But it has proved difficult to put bums on seats. When the audience is paying, 50 or 60 is the best turnout so far. Only when Mr Wang offers ticket concessions can he fill the venue for 200 people. Mr Wang's main problem is that he has set up the venture by himself. So, unlike the Chang'An, his theatre is not on the itinerary of the Chinese state tourism industry. "It is very difficult, but the only way is to persist," he said.