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In with old and in with new (3)

(China Daily)

10:55, June 22, 2013

It is the "easing into it" that will help youngsters with the learning and appreciation process. And that's where the documentary may be an effective aid. It demystifies the art form while at the same time placing it under a thick halo.

To a certain extent, Western classical music, including opera, is in a similar dilemma. But it has its share of stars who can help sell out shows and entice new audiences. Peking Opera needs its equivalent of Leonard Bernstein, whose televised lectures and demonstrations spawned a whole generation of classical music aficionados. As it stands, Peking Opera does not have a star big enough to cross over to the general public. All we have is a few pop singers who occasionally foray into the Peking Opera realm and snatch a few elements, such as melodies and makeup, to spruce up their tradition-embracing credentials.

Which is better than nothing. It hints to young people that Peking Opera can be chic and that it's not just for their parents and grandparents. But sometimes this kind of practice is carried too far, for example, when a group of scantily clad girls don Peking Opera headgear in a set of photos for a modeling contest.

To find a true audience of the younger demographic, Peking Opera has got to innovate in both form and content. Given Chinese loathing for tinkering with tradition, it would be unwise to "update" the old repertory to new versions. Keep them as they have always been. Sing and dance exactly as Mei Lanfang, the great master, did on stage. But create new shows that expand its musical idiom and narrative scope.

A few years ago, Chinese-American director Chen Shizheng staged a new version of Farewell, My Concubine in Beijing, incorporating a multimedia backdrop and modern dance, among other new elements. The production was lambasted in the press. But Red Cliff, the Three Kingdom legend produced by the National Center for the Performing Arts, was met with universal acclaim. It's both old and new. The story, the tunes and the costumes follow the old conventions, but the presentation and even some of the messages are new. There is an anti-war theme in the grand finale. Now, that is something the modern audience can resonate with.

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