August 29, 2010
Beijing Opera, a Historical Treasure in Fragile Condition
By RICHARD BERNSTEIN
BEIJING — “Watch out for that sword,” the rehearsal director shouted.
“I don’t want anybody’s head getting cut off because you don’t know what you’re doing.”
Lots of weapons were on stage at the Beijing Opera Academy of China here the other day. Teenage future opera stars were armed with lances, spears, swords and daggers as they carried out an elaborately choreographed, intricate, stylized and acrobatic fight scene, all to the clash of cymbals, drums, wooden clappers and a substantial orchestra of Chinese string and woodwind instruments.
Here and there in this ever more steel and glass city where old neighborhoods disappear from one month to the next, there is a glimpse of what the previous city was like — quiet, tree-shaded streets with small storefronts and bicycles, a locust tree leaning over a wall that hides an old courtyard house.
This modest and slightly shabby theater in the academy exists in a neighborhood in the southwest part of the city that has not been entirely torn down and rebuilt yet. The academy occupies the former site of the Beijing Dance Academy and does not seem to have been physically upgraded or modernized. It still has dingy corridors, ancient washrooms, rusting bunk beds (six to a room), a single fluorescent bulb hanging from the ceiling and an ancient radiator in front of the window.
And, of course, nothing could more suggest old Beijing than Beijing opera, with its masks, its stylized movements, its atonal, strangely modern arias, its fantastically intricate scenes of battle, and, probably most important, its audience of connoisseurs who know when to shout a throaty “hao!” — good! — after an especially well-executed movement or song.
The worry though is that, like the city’s old neighborhoods, Beijing opera could fall victim to China’s rampant commercialism and modernization. If it did, it would be a bit like Italy consigning Verdi or Donizetti to a few small halls in Milan and Rome, or to those folkloric shows for tourists who mostly do not know much about what they are seeing.
“Objectively speaking, right now there are some difficulties,” said Qiao Cuirong, a senior professor at the National Academy of Chinese Theater Arts, summing up the current state of Beijing opera. “People are interested in money and modernity and Western things, so our own culture has lost something.”
It would be premature to say that Beijing opera has turned into an antique relic, but clearly it is not what it was in the late 18th to early 20th century, when it was northern China’s most popular theatrical entertainment. The big national spectacles of recent years have included the 2008 Olympic opening ceremony, which, while drawing on China’s rich tradition, did not echo the traditional opera. There was also the lavish production of Puccini’s “Turandot,” directed by the celebrated filmmaker Zhang Yimou. That production was a Western import that was once banned in this country because it was deemed insulting to China.
Beijing opera certainly was not helped by the fact that during the turmoil of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, the form was deemed feudalistic and reactionary. But then again so was just about every other art form, including Western music and modern dance, both of which have since made vigorous recoveries.
But Beijing opera faces particular difficulties, aside from the aging and fading away of a knowledgeable audience.
“The more you know about Beijing opera, the more you love it,” said Liu Hua, a former performer and now a teacher at the school. “The problem is that it takes a lot to know it, and fewer and fewer people have the time or the inclination.”
Also, Beijing opera is an especially demanding form, both to perform and to witness.
“It takes a very long time to study, at least 8 to 10 years just to get in the door as a performer,” Mr. Qiao said. “And the whole thing is very slow. It’s not like a movie, and right now people want things to be fast. That’s why we’re losing the young crowd.”
Still, there seems, perhaps paradoxically, to be no shortage of students, as all those highly talented and professional-looking teenagers on the school stage the other day indicated. Young people start their training at age 11, going to one of the several Beijing opera academies around the country aimed at producing professional performers.
“Children really like it,” Mr. Qiao said. “Another reason is that some parents love it, and they want their children to learn it, even if they’re not thinking about having them become professionals.”
The early training lasts for six demanding, rigorous years. Given that Beijing opera is fading in popularity, especially among the younger generations, it seems strange that so many young people would want to go through it.
“It’s such good training that the students can go in almost any direction even if they don’t end up in the opera,” Ms. Liu said.
“A lot of our students end up on television or in the movies,” she added. “There are a lot of martial arts movies, and our students are all good at martial arts. Some of them become popular singers or actors. They’re not worried about their future.”
The Chinese Ministry of Culture, anxious about the form’s survival, lavishly subsidizes it, renovating theaters, commissioning new works, paying substantial salaries to the bearers of the tradition, like Mr. Qiao.
This year, 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. 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.
And there was the knowledgeable audience — theater entry was free, which is perhaps itself a sign of the form’s fragile standing with the public — shouting approval and applauding enthusiastically. “We teachers are doing our job, and the government’s Culture Ministry is supporting us,” Mr. Qiao said. “Everybody’s doing their best to keep this as a cultural treasure, whether people go to see it or not.”