Beijing opera turning 200, facing indifference

November 05, 1990|By New York Times News Service

Beijing - When an American tourist in Beijing wanted to thank a Chinese friend for his hospitality, he decided to invite the host to an evening of traditional opera. Beijing opera is world renowned, and so the American assumed it would be a great treat for his Chinese host.

Halfway into the show, the American found himself dreadfully bored, so he leaned over and asked the friend if he came often to see Beijing opera. The Chinese said he had not been to an opera in 10 years. Somewhat patronizingly, the American asked if it was too expensive.

"No," the Chinese said. "But don't you find it terribly boring?"

That seems to be the general attitude these days, and while Beijing opera is celebrating its 200th anniversary this year, nobody seems to notice or care.

Even many performers acknowledge that Beijing opera is facing a crisis, and that young people would much rather see a Western movie than sit through nearly three hours of ritualized singing that they cannot understand.

"My own children don't like Beijing opera," admitted Lu Ruiming, director of the Academy of Beijing Opera. "When there's a Beijing opera on the television, they turn the channel."

Opera in China is not a luxury, an occasion to flaunt one's finest jackets and gowns, but rather has more of the ambience of a Western picnic. Viewers dress casually, and occasionally chew on sunflower seeds and chat with their neighbors as the actors perform.

On the stage, the performers wear beautiful costumes, but the sets are very simple. Horses are never brought out on the stage, even though they are constantly part of the action -- their presence is implied by the acting.

The actors sing in voices that sound like a warbling falsetto, while moving in very formal and sometimes highly exaggerated ways.

They wave their wrists, sleeves flying, and shuffle forward and backward in ritualized movements that could scarcely be less believable but that connoisseurs admire. Periodically, actors engage in highly stylized kung fu fights.

Young people tend to offer two general complaints about Beijing opera. The first is that they do not understand it, because the libretto is in archaic Chinese. The second is that the pace is much too slow.

"They sing so that each word goes on forever, and no one is that patient these days," said a 28-year-old social scientist. People of her generation often seek entertainment from adventure movies that set a blistering pace of chase scenes and kung fu fights.

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