China loses its passion for the Peking Opera - a national treasure

Western entertainment lures many talented youngsters away from the traditional art form

FOLLOWING in his parents' footsteps, Li Chun aspired to perform in the Peking Opera.

But now he's not so sure. Since the acting student was cast for a small part in ``Farewell, My Concubine,'' an acclaimed film about the friendship of two Peking Opera singers during 50 years of turbulent Chinese history, Mr. Li, the son of two opera performers, says he's torn between the declining opera and popular films.

``It all depends on the situation of Peking Opera at the time of my graduation,'' the self-assured 16-year-old said during a break in acrobatics class at the Middle School of the Chinese Beijing Opera College. ``If Peking Opera becomes less and less popular, I might go in for movies.''

Peking Opera, China's most famous art form combining acrobatics, singing, and dance to re-create stories from its rich literary heritage, is aging in a culture where the young favor Hong Kong and Hollywood cinema, television, and videos over Chinese tradition.

In the last decade, China's theater and opera communities have become increasingly concerned that the art form, which survived both the Japanese occupation in the 1930s and a ban on traditional performances during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, may not endure present economic reforms.

Great opera houses are being torn down or converted into discos, karaoke clubs, and movie theaters. Performing standards are dropping and opera troupes, financially strained and in disarray, rely more and more on tourist audiences and overseas performances to survive.

Actors and teachers, working for almost the same pay today as when the opera was highly popular 40 years ago, are lured away by the bigger salaries of business or movie companies, and the once extensive national network of rigorous training schools is shrinking.

``Peking Opera is not as popular now, so students don't have as much of a sense of devotion. Some students think that if they go into another career, they won't have to work so hard,'' says Ma Mingjun, an opera performer and teacher at the Beijing Middle School.

``All the themes of Peking Opera are linked with ancient history, and now young people don't have a good understanding of the Chinese past and traditional themes,'' he continued over the shrill falsetto and trills of a 12-year-old boy practicing nearby. ``As a result, there is less variety in the shows and lesser quality in the performances, so Peking Opera is less appealing.''

Beijing is the cultural hub where the 200-year-old opera thrived under the Dowager Empress Cixi and the best actors were summoned to perform in the glittering Qing Dynasty imperial court in the Forbidden City. Here, the opera is sadly losing its appeal, Chinese opera performers and teachers say.

During the Chinese New Year, a time when thousands of holidaymakers used to flock to the opera theaters or tune in to continuous opera programs on television, only a few performances were presented this year.

In a sign of the times, the historic Jixiang Theater, built in 1905 by a palace eunuch in a Beijing back street known as Goldfish Alley, was razed this year for a Hong Kong-funded shopping center, despite a petition signed by more than 50 actors, directors, and critics.

The municipal government of Beijing, where there were dozens of opera theaters before the Communist takeover in 1949, has been promising for three years to build a new theater, but the project has yet to get off the ground for lack of funds.

``Peking Opera is in crisis,'' says Yuan Shihai, one of China's most revered stage luminaries who performed for almost seven decades. ``The Peking Opera is our national treasure.''

To rescue the art form, the government and opera performers, directors, and aficionados have launched a new campaign. To commemorate the birthday centennials of master actors Mei Lanfang and Zhou Xinfang, a Peking Opera gala will be held in Beijing in December.

Since September, opera karaoke competitions have been held in cities across China as well as in Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, Singapore, Japan, and the United States to choose contestants for the December finals.

Opera companies increasingly are allowing amateurs to perform as part of the companies' appeal for financial help to mainland companies and overseas Chinese.

But any future for Peking Opera lies in developing new young talent, opera performers and instructors emphasize.

``The most important thing to revitalize Peking Opera is to train top actors because only with top actors can you have great shows,'' says Wu Chunsheng, a martial-arts instructor at the Beijing Middle School who says that opera also must diversify into more modern themes.

But such schools, where students practice acrobatics, martial arts, and singing in dilapidated classrooms, are under mounting pressure. In the 1950s, shortly after its founding, the school boasted some of China's greatest opera performers who taught 700 students.

Now, financial constraints have forced enrollment down to about 400 students, ages 5 to 18, and, with the closing of many provincial opera training schools, the waiting list at the Beijing academy stretches to the year 2000. Many will not go on to the sister college nearby.

To raise extra revenues, the Beijing academy is also trying to sell itself to overseas students with enthusiasm for traditional drama.

Yuta Shiyama, an 18-year-old from Tokyo who plans to study Peking Opera for four years, says he favors the ``purity'' of classical Chinese opera over kabuki, Japan's traditional theater, which he considers ``outdated.''

``A few Japanese friends have come to visit me here. They say Peking Opera is good, but it's too difficult,'' he said after a morning of acrobatics instruction. ``I say this is my life.''

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