The Fat Lady is Singing

Beijing opera seeks to reinvent itself in order to survive



Zhang Minglu remembers a time when Beijing opera buffs were so enthralled with his performances that they would throw gold coins onto the stage. ``In my day, 80 percent of the people loved opera, and they could spend the whole day at the opera house,'' recalls Zhang, 81, an acrobat once renowned for his role as the Monkey King in ``Journey to the West.'' But these days, Beijing productions play to half-empty houses. Box-office receipts have plummeted, and government subsidies have dried up. Of the people who do attend, fewer and fewer are Chinese; at the People's Theater, the foreign audience has grown by 30 percent over the past five years. At the Chang An, tourists now compose 40 percent of the audience.

Still, the fat lady has not quite finished singing. The ancient art form--which combines music, dance, martial arts, acrobatics, acting and loud caterwauling--is struggling to reinvent itself in order to compete with the rising tide of films, music and TV shows flooding China. ``Western movies and music are like a virus,'' says Ghaffar Pourazar, a Brit who has studied opera in China for the past decade. ``Beijing opera takes a lot of education to appreciate, but with modern culture, there's an immediate buzz.''

Beijing opera is doing its best to generate a bit more of that buzz. Wang Yuzhen, president of the Beijing Opera Troupe, says productions are dramatically shortening five- and six-hour operas by cutting out scenes and scaling down performances to use just two or three actors. In a recent production of ``Water Thrown Before the Horse,'' the director incorporated mime for the first time, and the cast donned their colorful costumes in front of the audience. Other productions are using more quirky props and dazzling acrobatics. And to woo younger audiences, they are taking performances on the road to universities around the country. ``Whatever the audience likes should be our starting point,'' says Wang. ``If we can't catch up with the times, we could see Peking opera die out.''

Purists, predictably, are horrified. They argue that actors who perform largely for tourists give less than stellar performances, since they believe the audience can't tell the difference. ``Tourists are only seeing acrobatics and fighting, and this is not the essence of Beijing opera,'' says Pourazar. ``What about the beauty of the music and dancing?'' At the same time, tourism has driven up the average price of an opera ticket to around $7--triple what it was five years ago. That's about one-fourth the monthly income of a local fan.

Opera has always had a fraught history in China. Before the communist revolution, talented children were sent to cruel opera schools, where they were often beaten. The octogenarian Zhang, who attended one of those schools, says the training was ``extremely bitter'' but produced top performers. The communists prohibited such schools, and opera singers gained respectability. Then, during Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution, opera singers were persecuted, and the traditional art was banned. When China opened up in the late 1970s, opera had a brief resurgence--but only until new forms of entertainment began to arrive.

Zhang, for one, is not ready to write off traditional opera altogether. Each morning he trains a small group of students in Taoranting Park--the same park where, during the Cultural Revolution, he rehearsed in secret. ``Beijing opera can never be destroyed,'' he says. ``It's too profound.'' Zhang is unable to stand up for long, but his voice is strong as he shouts instructions--``Bend a bit more! Keep your head straight!''--to the students as they practice their routines. They're the last hope for a fading art.


© 2013 Paul J. Mooney