Chinese youth help keep traditional opera alive

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Ji Rou sat nervously as a helper applied make-up to her face just hours before she took the stage for a performance of Peking opera, an arcane Chinese art form the government wants to revive.

As the assistant applied red to her lips and bright pink to her cheeks and eyes, Ji, 15, admitted she was a bit worried about having to perform the lead female role after only a year of opera studies.

Her school – the No. 171 middle school – is one of 22 in Beijing that have introduced regular voluntary classes as part of government efforts to ignite interest in Peking opera among young Chinese.

The lessons aim to explain the stories of the centuries-old operas, and inspire a fascination for what can seem, to lovers of modern music, a tuneless cacophony of falsetto trilling set to clanging drums and out-of-time percussion.

“Before, I never really understood Peking opera, I never understood its role or the stories, and I thought it was something that old people enjoyed, Ji said before rushing off to get her elaborate green costume and head dress.

“But now I really like watching and studying it.

Peking opera is considered one of China’s national treasures – an art form more than 200 years old made famous abroad by films such as “Farewell My Concubine and the more recent “Forever Enthralled starring Zhang Ziyi.

Once hugely popular, it fell from grace following the 1949 civil war victory by the communists who frowned on – and tried to destroy – traditional culture.

During the tumultuous 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, Chinese opera became a propaganda tool, with only eight “model operas allowed, and shown over and over again.

With the death of Mao Zedong and the introduction of economic reforms in the late 1970s, Peking opera enjoyed something of a nostalgic revival, with the “model operas staged in theaters and shown on television.

But genuine public interest in traditional opera continued to dwindle, theaters dedicated to Peking opera were torn down to make way for Beijing’s high-rises, and modern entertainment, such as pop and karaoke, took over.

Fearing that a distinctly Chinese art form was in its death throes, the government began the school trial in Beijing and nine other provinces and cities.

“Using this method, we want our children to understand our country’s culture even more, said Wang Jun, an official at the Beijing education commission.

“Since the world has diversified culturally, every country must emphasize the importance of its own culture, he said, adding that the trials would be extended to other schools when the new term started in September.

Zhuo Yayi, a language teacher at Ji’s school who began teaching Peking opera in 2007 ahead of the government initiative, said it had been difficult to drum up interest when the lessons began.

“It was difficult because the children thought it was horrible to listen to, he said. “When it first started, there were only seven or eight students, last year there were 14, but this year there are 44.

But not all students have been converted to the joys of Peking opera.

“I can accept it, but I think that I won’t be attending this type of activity after (this term), said Shi Wenjun, 17, as he sat waiting to have his costume fitted.

“I thought it was pretty boring before, and compared with the popular songs it feels completely different.

As the show prepared to kick off, hundreds of students took their places in the school auditorium, alongside several grandparents who came to hear a new generation present the music of their youth.

The students performed extracts from eight operas to the enthusiastic cheers of fellow students delighted to see their classmates in colorful robes with long flowing sleeves, platform slippers and surreally bright make-up.

Tian Jiaxin, a spokeswoman for Beijing’s Chang’an Grand Theater said the school trials had led to increased numbers of younger people coming to see traditional opera performances.

“Chang’an’s audience is made up of 50 percent old, 30 percent middle-aged and 20 percent young people, but the proportion of youngsters coming to see Peking opera is increasing, she said.

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