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English>>Life & Culture

Painted faces

By Raymond Zhou (China Daily)

09:57, September 11, 2012

Ghaffar Pourazar practices Peking Opera at Taoranting Park in Beijing. (China Daily/Zou Hong)

The colorful makeup of Peking Opera masks Ghaffar Pourazar's nationality, and at the same time reveals the lifelong dedication of a true lover of the art, Raymond Zhou discovers in Beijing.

The guard at the entrance took one look at Ghaffar Pourazar and waved him through. He did not have to pay the 2 yuan (32 cents) entrance to Taoranting Park in southern Beijing as we took a weekday stroll through it recently.

Pourazar, or Gefa in Chinese, is one of the multitude of Peking Opera practitioners who vocalize or play the fiddle, using the park as their main rehearsal venue. These are mostly amateurs with a passion for the traditional art, and also a few retired professionals who relive their glory days by reprising the roles they used to sing.

But Gefa is in a league of his own. The Englishman of Iranian descent is not just a fan of Peking Opera, but also a practicing actor of the Chinese art. And more than his Chinese peers, he takes it around the world - teaching, demonstrating and performing.

Like the Chinese connoisseurs, Gefa cannot help lamenting the three-decade decline of the genre.

"People get concerned when they lose something valuable," he says. "And Peking Opera has reached that stage, or even beyond that." One sign, according to Gefa, is the unwillingness of professionals to have their children carry on the baton. It is hard to make a living as a Peking Opera performer.

Gefa recounts an incident in the early 1990s. Guan Sushuang, a prominent Peking Opera performer known for her warrior roles, was once invited to appear in a television variety show. She was paid 100 yuan for it. But the young pop singer who appeared alongside her was given several hundred times that amount.

"With the 100 yuan, Guan bought a few bottles of liquor, and the next day they found her dead next to the empty bottles," Gefa says.

Gefa knows firsthand how much training a great master like Guan must have invested before she could attain her level of artistic height. He was 32 when, in 1993, he caught a Peking Opera performance on tour in London. He was so awestruck that he gave up his job as a computer animator and packed up and left for Beijing to study with that same opera company.

Life in Beijing was hard then, and training was even harder. Most of his classmates were half or even a third his age.

Gefa specializes in the warrior category, and his signature role is the Monkey King. Whenever he has an international audience, he will sprinkle his dialogue with English narration. Although the projection of subtitles is popular in China, and even Chinese lyrics are displayed, Gefa is not crazy about this.

He thinks the subtitles distract the audience and the English subtitles cannot convey the nuances of the language.

Having studied theater arts in the United Kingdom, Gefa is familiar with the stylized delivery of lines in traditional plays such as Shakespeare. He has used the similarity between the two art forms and come up with his own way of line reading.

It sounds like Peking Opera when you first hear it, but listen harder and it is English - somewhat like the recitative lyrics of Italian opera, with a vague melodic line beneath highly enhanced words.

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