Modernizing a tradition
Beijing opera tries to keep up with the times
January 19, 1997
Web posted at: 3:30 p.m. EST
From Correspondent Rebecca MacKinnon
BEIJING (CNN) -- Most young people prefer to go to the movies
rather than spend a night at the opera, and in China,
they're no different. (960K/22 sec. QuickTime movie)
Amid concerns that the non-operatic interests of China's
younger population may kill off the venerable institution,
some Chinese are taking steps to make sure that doesn't
Wang Yuming is a cultural entrepreneur. Two years ago, he
saved a 300-year-old Beijing opera house from demolition
-- using most of his own money.
"As far as I know, this is the first time since liberation
that a private business has invested in a national relic," he
said. "In the past, work like this was only done by the
Now aficionados of this traditional form of Chinese drama
can sit just like people did in days of old -- sipping tea
and enjoying the music and the pageantry which Beijing-ers
have loved for centuries.
But the theater still can't break even. The audience for
Beijing opera is dwindling, and so is the number of people
who know how to perform it. That's why 74-year-old Zhang
Minglu can't bring himself to retire.
"Beijing opera is the essence of Chinese culture," he says.
"To keep it from being lost, we have to teach it to the
younger generation. Our hopes are with them now."
Becoming an opera performer isn't easy. At the Beijing Opera
School, children start at the age of eight or younger. They
train all day, every day. Their teachers push them to
exacting precision. Crying is not encouraged.
After a grueling day of training, many of the students come
at night to perform at the newly built Chang An Opera House.
Both the show and the building are part of a
government-sponsored effort to revive public interest in
traditional opera. But the performance itself is far from
Traditional opera fans say they find Chang An's opera a bit
bewildering. It combines elements of Beijing opera, modern
choreography, and romance into a high tech and expensive mix.
The show's creators say that Beijing opera has to adapt in
order to survive.
"We wanted to make this production more accessible to young
people and foreigners," says Wu Jiang of the Ministry of
Culture. "Old people like the traditional style, but young
people have very different tastes. You have to recognize this
if you want to market your product."
And at the Chang An Opera House, there's no lack of
capitalism. The complex also includes a video arcade, dance
halls, and other untraditional forms of entertainment.
Managers admit that it is these things -- not the opera --
that bring in most of the money.
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