Carrying the Spear (and Dagger) for a Fading Art Form

Like much of old Beijing, Peking Opera is now rapidly fading into history. The New York Times reports on the fight to keep it alive:

This modest and slightly shabby theater is part of the Beijing Opera Academy, in a neighborhood in the southwest part of the city that has not been entirely torn down and rebuilt yet. The academy occupies the former site of the Beijing Dance Academy and does not seem to have been physically upgraded or modernized. It still has dingy corridors, ancient washrooms, rusting bunk beds (six to a room), a single fluorescent bulb hanging from the ceiling and an ancient radiator in front of the window.

And, of course, nothing could more suggest old Beijing than Beijing opera, with its masks, its stylized movements, strangely modern arias, its fantastically intricate scenes of battle, and, probably most important, its audience of connoisseurs who know when to shout a throaty “hao!” — good! — after an especially well-executed movement or song.

The worry, though, is that, like the old neighborhoods, Beijing opera could fall victim to China’s rampant commercialism and modernization. If it did, it would be a bit like Italy consigning Verdi or Donizetti to a few small halls in Milan and Rome, or to those folkloric shows for tourists who mostly do not know much about what they are seeing.

“Objectively speaking, right now there are some difficulties,” said Qiao Cuirong, a senior professor at the National Academy of Chinese Theater Arts, summing up the current state of the opera. “People are interested in money and modernity and Western things, so our own culture has lost something.”

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