Singing for Survival

Beijing opera used to be prime-time entertainment. Now its principals are ageing, apprentices are leaving and cash-strapped troupes play to empty houses or for foreign tourists



ZHANG MINGLU sits in a small restaurant beside an old opera house, reminiscing about the glory days of Beijing opera, when the neighbourhood had a clutter of small theatres.

'In my day, 80 per cent of the people loved opera, and they could spend the whole day at the opera house,' says the tiny Zhang, a master performer of the Monkey King role. The 81-year-old describes how his troupe would put on three performances a day, and how he was fawned over by opera buffs, who would throw pieces of gold onto the stage.

'Fifty years ago, my teacher was Michael Jackson,' says Ghaffar Pourazar, one of Zhang's students, from Britain. How times have changed. Zhang today lives in a small, dilapidated house in a rundown alley in the old theatre district, a sad reminder of a once grand art to which he has devoted 73 years of his life. For while Beijing opera remained unscathed during 200 years of political upheaval, civil war, and even the Japanese invasion, this rich art form was no match for the Communist revolution of 1949, nor the opening up of China in the late 1970s, which some say could sound the death knell. The theatres that were packed with viewers in Zhang's day are now gone and many of the seats in the remaining venues are often empty.

The only shows that pack any audiences are the watered-down performances for foreign tourists, who now contribute more than half of opera's income. The Beijing Opera Troupe's three troupes perform 1,000 times a year, and a large chunk of this is for Western tourists. Some see tourism as the Great White Hope of Beijing opera; others see it as the Grim Reaper. The Li Yuan Theatre is crowded with foreign tour groups every night, but the show seldom departs from the nightly diet of short excerpts from plays full of impressive acrobatics, more often than not Monkey King stories that have a lot of action and that are more easily digested by audiences who don't understand Chinese.

Even when the few remaining talented opera stars stage performances, the bulk of the tickets are given away to fans, students and government employees. Box- office receipts have thus plummeted, and with government subsidies slashed, the art is today groping for a way to keep its head above the rising tide of TV, movies, rock music and karaoke bars. 'Western movies and music are like a virus,' says Pourazar, who has studied opera for a decade in the capital.

'Beijing opera takes a lot of education to appreciate, but with modern culture, there's an immediate buzz,' he says snapping his fingers several times. Beijing opera is a rich cultural tradition, the offshoot of China's myriad opera styles that date back more than 1,000 years. It combines music, dance, martial arts, acrobatics and acting, and performers must be versatile. Proponents call it the quintessential Chinese art form. According to one old Chinese saying: 'Each word is a song, each movement a dance.'

Opera fared well in the early years of communist rule when actors - once looked down upon - enjoyed a newfound respectability. One of the first things the communists did was ban the old opera schools where beating was an integral part of the training. Zhang studied in one of the schools portrayed in Chen Kaige's classic Farewell My Concubine. He says the parents sending their children off to these schools had to sign a contract saying they would not hold the school responsible if their son was injured or died during the training.

Zhang says the training was brutal, and should not be allowed again, but he concedes it helped performers reach unimaginable artistic heights. 'In the old days, you weren't taught opera, it was beaten into you,' he says, quoting an old saying.

Opera was not able to withstand the political upheavals that began in the 50s. The first blow came during the Hundred Flowers Movement in 1957, when the Communist Party attacked the feudal aspects of the art, whose plots were based on stories and myths from the past. In the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), opera stars were persecuted and traditional opera was banned, with only eight model revolutionary operas, selected by Jiang Qing, Chairman Mao Zedong's wife, approved for the stage. 'If you were caught singing opera you would be called a reactionary,' recalls Zhang, who secretly practised his acrobatic movements in a quiet corner of Taoranting Park, where he continues to train students today. 'We lost a generation of performers, they broke the tradition and killed opera,' says Zhang. 'It won't be possible to tie the knot again.'

Zhang was fortunate, however. While many of his colleagues were beaten, killed or driven to suicide, he was sent to work in a factory and did not take to the stage again for a decade. He describes how roving bands of Red Guards, keen to destroy the 'Four Olds,' burned opera costumes, props and scripts. Experts say that the Cultural Revolution also caused a break in the cultivation of the next generation of fans, reflected in the low turnout at the opera today.

Xu Jinru, an opera researcher, argues that the new generation of performers cannot compare to those of the past. He says the legendary Mei Lanfang could perform 300 plays; Zhou Xinfang close to 600 and San Mazi more than 1,000. Opera performers today can do 20 at the most, says Xu. 'The old fans say to me, 'How can I explain to you what I saw 40-50 years ago,?'' says Pourazar, who uses words such as 'superhero' and 'inhuman' to describe the stars of the past. As a result, opera is not only failing to attract new audiences, it's also losing its grip on some of art's staunchest fans, increasingly disillusioned by the decline of opera and the changes being proposed to keep it alive. Xu and his partner say they have not been to an opera for about six years. 'It's very sad,' he says of the current state of the theatre. 'So I only watch the old plays on DVDs or listen to them on CDs. There are a lot of people like me.'

A report in China Daily said opera schools enjoyed record applications, but experts say that many of these students are more interested in acrobatics and dance, which offer better salaries. The schools will always be full,' says Pourazar, 'but most will move on to other things.' Sun Yumin, president of the Beijing Traditional Opera School, says a number of her graduates desert the opera after graduation to become nightclub singers, earning a lot more money than they could in opera. With low salaries paid for a tough learning regimen that begins as early as the age of eight, it's no wonder. The average actor makes 1,000 yuan (HK$938)-2,000 yuan a month, as much as a worker in a state-owned factory. When asked how much he earns, Wang Yuxi, a young opera star, says simply: 'Enough to eat.'

Meanwhile, the surviving masters of Peking opera live in run-down houses around the capital. Some underpaid opera performers moonlight in restaurants where their well-trained voices compete with the clashing of chopsticks against rice bowls and the chitchat of customers. Others dress up in colourful opera costumes to pose for photographs with tourists at famous Beijing sites for a few yuan a shot. Zhang Lu, trained as an opera scriptwriter, says some small troupes have been reduced to performing at funerals. 'If you're forced to do this to make a few hundred yuan, you might as well let opera die,' says Zhang.

Sun says that opera troupes rely on the government for about 70 per cent of their income, with the remaining coming from ticket sales, but she says 'the government can't take care of you forever.' She concedes that artists are poor, but then adds: 'If you're an artist you have to be a bit of a risk-taker. If you love money too much, you shouldn't be in this work.'

Sun knows about suffering. In 1968, under attack during the Cultural Revolution, she jumped out a window of the Henan Peking Opera Troupe's building in an attempt to kill herself. The 12-metre fall broke her spine and left both heels shattered. Wang Yuzhen, the 60-something president of the Beijing Opera Troupe, and a major proponent of reform, says she feels a responsibility to do something, arguing that creativity and change are required to attract audiences.

'The audience is God, and so whatever the audience likes should be our starting point,' she says. 'If no one buys tickets to see our performances, we have failed. If we can't catch up with the times, we could see Peking opera die out.' Wang and other Beijing opera reformers are trying a variety of experiments. Wang says plays that once lasted five hours can be cut to a more palatable two hours. To save money, opera troupes are also staging smaller performances, using two or three actors. Wang's opera troupe has also been incorporating acting techniques from modern theatre and cinema.

'People today are so used to soap operas on TV and films that they pay a lot of attention to the facial emotions of actors,' says Wang Yuxi of Wang Yuzhen's troupe. 'Opera is learning from this.'

The Beijing Opera Troupe scored a success with an old play with a new twist, Water Thrown Before The Horse. The director incorporated mime into the play, the first time such a technique had been used in Beijing opera. The actors also put their colourful costumes in front of the audience. The play attracted intellectuals, who find modern-day relevance in the story about two ancient leaders, one good, one bad. 'You have to hook people on some hot topic,' says Sun.

Opera fans frown on the use of modern music in opera, and the use of microphones. Xu says facial expressions have always been a part of opera, but that the reformers 'have taken it too far'. And he says that the reforms won't attract a new loyal following, and could further alienate serious opera fans.

'A ximi [opera fan] will spend money to see operas over and over again, even the same play,' he says. 'They know the operas by heart, and sing along in their hearts, eyes closed, during the plays.'

Ironically, many of the most loyal opera fans can't afford the price of a ticket. Even inexpensive tickets can cost 60 yuan, several days' income for many. Some old fans lurk at the door of opera houses, hoping to get a spare ticket.

Pourazar counters criticisms that the opera is being watered down by efforts to attract new fans. 'Beijing opera was never fixed, it was always changing,' he says, referring to Mei, a male actor who specialised in playing female roles. He says Mei changed costumes, make-up, staging and text. 'He put fashion into it, he was looking at what the audience liked,' says Pourazar, who raised a few eyebrows when he staged Shakespeare's Mid-Summer Night's Dream using both opera and ballet to tell his story. Pourazar concedes, however, that opera has never before faced such rapid changes in society. 'It's like teaching an old man to run,' he says of attempts at reform. Pessimists seem resigned to seeing the opera become a museum piece. 'You're not fighting an enemy, but time,' says Pourazar. 'You can't stop nature.'

Xu favours keeping the tradition pure and alive, even if only for the small band of real opera buffs, a group he refers to unabashedly as 'aristocrats'. 'Opera is a thing that can only be enjoyed by a small group of people,' he says. 'It will never become something enjoyed by the masses. If you can retain the beauty of Beijing opera and satisfy the aristocrats, that will be enough,' he says. Michelle Chan, an amateur performer, disagrees, saying that opera started out as a folk art. 'One hundred years ago, Beijing opera was like R&B music,' she says.

Xu would like to see a revival of the traditional opera schools, but would revive the traditional ban on women taking to the stage. He says women are not suitable for playing the roles of women in the opera, for which mannerisms, singing and styles were originally developed for men playing women. Many women opera fans agree.

Xu also wouldn't be disappointed to see the opera writing school shut down, saying the focus should be on saving the old scripts that have managed to survive the various political campaigns. He says there were originally about 6,000 traditional plays, but that old actors can only remember about 500, and these should be revived. 'There's no need to write new operas,' he says. 'The charm of Beijing opera is that you want to watch it once, 10 times, 100 times,' says the opera fan. 'If you really like opera, you'll have a passion for it. I think that the good operas will be able to pass the test of redundancy.'

Chan says the burden will not fall on her if opera declines further. 'To put it selfishly, I don't care, as long as there are still one or two good performances each year,' she says. 'I have my CDs.' But then she points out that Beijing opera 'has stood the test of two centuries. Opera will never die,' she concludes with the air of a true believer.


© 2013 Paul J. Mooney