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A note of foreboding for Peking opera

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Qiu Jirong sits at a mirror in his dressing room, painstakingly applying his theater makeup.

First the white, then firm strokes of gold, black and finally red -- the face paint that will transform him into a colorful fairy-tale character in China's iconic national art form: the Peking opera.

For a few hours, he feels the power that only the stage can bring. His shrill arias rise to an impossibly high pitch as he gestures to the pounding clang of drums and cymbals.

But the transformation is short-lived. Soon, the classically trained actor, 22, must return toreality: Before the curtain falls, he scans the audience and sees mostly empty seats.

The 200-year-old art form performed by six generations of Qiu's family is rapidly losing fans among younger Chinese, who shun its plodding theatrics and trademark tales of generals, concubines and emperors for more modern artistic fare.

The number of Peking opera touring troupes has dwindled as the performances have become a heavily subsidized staple of state-run television. Even free tickets to live shows go unclaimed.

Its stalwarts remain mostly elderly Chinese and foreigners. For the young, the stilted pageants have become something of a cultural embarrassment, tantamount to an American teen snickering in disdain when Mom plays her old Neil Diamondalbums.

Now the government is launching a campaign to save the once-beloved opera. Academies have renewed the call for new students. Party officials have expressed concern.

"Young people are turned off by these performances," Qiu said. "If we do not prop up the opera, then it will fall."

Last month, an ornate new center opened in Beijing to focus nearly exclusively on the opera. The 1,100-seat Meilanfang Grand Theater, named after the opera's leading light who once toured the world and befriended Charlie Chaplin, will use an aggressive advertising campaign and reduced ticket prices in an effort to attract larger crowds.

Owner Wu Jiang says he worries that one day the opera will disappear from Chinese culture. "Peking opera was born in agrarian times. Now that it's an information age, it might be out of date.

"To preserve it, we need to [offer] a base, a theater focused on Peking opera."

Actors say they would rather quit than alter what they consider an indelible part of China's history and culture because it has appealed to China's masses for so many years.

"Once you start preserving an art form, it's like declaring it dead," says Joshua Goldstein, an associate professor of Chinese history at USC whose specialty is Peking opera. "But without state support, it will suffer the fate of classical music and opera in the West -- left to the elite to keep it afloat.

"Back in the early 1900s, these operas were really part of the air people breathed," Goldstein says. "Now the stories are no longer a part of the lives of the audience."

Some say that changes don't necessarily have to be contemporary in nature.

Kenneth Pai, a retired UC Santa Barbara professor and Peking opera expert, has created an adaptation of a kunqu opera, a forerunner to the Peking opera, a sumptuous nine-hour production that he has toured throughout China and played to sold-out audiences at four state universities in California.

"Even at nine hours long, over three nights, it's attracted a lot of people," he says.

Pai's opera employs younger actors and a romantic story line to draw audiences. "This art," he says, "has to change to survive."

Peking opera dates to the late 1790s, during China's Qing dynasty, when audiences became transfixed by its blend of stylized action, singing, dialogue, mime, acrobatic fighting and dancing.

The actors play four roles: male, female, painted-face male, and clown. The characters can be loyal or treacherous, good or bad, beautiful or ugly -- their personalities vividly manifested on their painted faces. Although most Peking operas are more traditional, some new interpretations have been performed.

For generations, the theater was the sole domain of men, who also played female roles. But in recent decades women have been allowed on the opera stage.

A favorite entertainment among Chinese before the 1949 revolution, the form survived into the communist era, when most of its characters were portrayed as model revolutionaries. The music remained the same, but rather than beautiful people and men of letters, the characters were communist heroes.

For Qiu Jirong, the opera's hard times arebittersweet. He makes his living from it, but the slender man with delicate features prefers modern dance, hip-hop and Michael Jackson to the stodgy rhythms of his art form.

After his father's death from lung cancer at 39, Qiu's mother pressured him to continue the family legacy. He once cried when he saw his father paint his face before a performance because the makeup looked so threatening. Then, at age 9, he was thrust into the theater and its ornate customs. His given name means "to continue."

Sometimes, he feels it really means "to be trapped."

"A young man should be able to follow his own heart, instead of being burdened by Chinese perceptions and family loyalty," he says.

His grandfather, Qiu Shengrong, was a major performer until his death in 1971. He was an opium addict and said he used the drug for artistic inspiration. Both he and his wife, another opera performer, died of lung cancer after years of opium use.

The youngest Qiu sees his own life as no less a tragedy. He makes a mere $100 a week despite his classical training. He believes he is viewed by many as more of a curiosity than an artist.

On a recent night, he applied his makeup before a performance in a second-rate hotel theater. Managers allowed the mostly foreign audience to parade through the dressing room.

They laughed and took pictures of Qiu and the other actors.

"I feel like an animal in a zoo," he laments.

As a painted face, or leading actor, Qiu has played such roles as a Chinese Robin Hood and a Song dynasty judge. This show is a fairy tale about a female fish who wants to offer her lover a pearl beneath the Rainbow Bridge. Her generosity is opposed by the gods and a battle ensues. Qiu plays one of the divine servants.

He knows most of the audience is not sophisticated enough to grasp the opera's cultural associations, such as the complex family and social relationships in feudal China.Many will hear the singing and voice impersonations as just so much noise.

But he knows a foreign audience is often the best he can get. Many Chinese won't pay the $10 to $300 to see live opera. Once, he said, the government gave free tickets to an opera performance at the Great Hall of the People. Only 40% of seats were filled.

"Even my friends don't buy tickets," he says. "They will only come if it's free. And often, not even then."

Qiu has his doubts about his own role in the opera. He'd rather spend his time practicing modern dance. Sometimes, he searches for inspiration to even show up at the theater.

Why live in the shadow of his ancestors? he asks himself. He's weary of the costumes his grandfather wore, singing the same dated arias. Nearly every day, he struggles to muster the enthusiasm to come to the theater. He wants to quit. But he feels the cultural pressure on a Chinese son to obey his mother's wishes.

He respects the art form, but he has no love for it.

"Peking opera is my job," he says. "You don't have the passion for it like you do for something you truly love. But you still have feeling for it."

Colleagues call him a pessimist. He sees them "as ostriches with their heads in the sand," refusing to acknowledge that their art form is in peril.

Once again, the time has come to perform the stage spectacle considered a Chinese national treasure. The gawking tourists have left the dressing room and found their seats.

The music is playing. Qiu Jirong is now in full costume. The transformation has taken place.

"In opera," he says, "there are no real artists, only good performers."

He sighs deeply and walks toward the stage.

john.glionna@latimes.com

Cathy Gao of The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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