Peking Opera - Bel Canto in Chinese: Introducing Its Vocal Training Process

By Zhang, Wen | Journal of Singing, November/December 2011 | Go to article overview

Peking Opera - Bel Canto in Chinese: Introducing Its Vocal Training Process


Zhang, Wen, Journal of Singing


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INTRODUCING PEKING OPERA

PEKING OPERA, A CHINESE CULTURAL TREASURE with a history of over 200 years, is a synthesis of singing, dancing, acting, and acrobatics, as well as instrumental music. A widely regarded expression of Chinese culture, Peking Opera includes many historic events and legends in its rich and large repertoire, and it features a great variety of dramatic gestures, artistic face painting, and elaborate costumes in its performances. It is a highly entertaining and fascinating art form, even to people who do not understand Chinese.1

During the ten-year Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), there were eight so-called "Revolutionary Operas" that dominated theaters and media throughout China; the rest of Peking Opera repertoire was dismissed as the legacy of feudalism. Those eight operas were promoted for ideological reasons to meet Chairman Mao's and his wife Madam Jiang's political views. As most Chinese in that generation could sing quite a few songs from the eight operas, the phenomenon was historically famous as "800 million people with eight operas" (the population of China at that time).

In the late 1970s, as China began to open to the Western world, Chinese people were newly exposed to modern Western music. Likewise, Chinese culture started to attract Western society; foreigners visited China and wished to learn its legends from Peking Opera. Since then, that national treasure has made significant contributions to cultural exchange. Oscar-winning Chinese composer Tan Dun incorporated a great deal of Peking Opera style into his new opera, The First Emperor, which had a successful world premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in 2006; it featured Western opera legend Placido Domingo in ten performances singing the leading role of the Chinese Emperor.

In recent years, Peking Opera has faced the same challenges troubling Western opera: reduced audiences and lack of newcomers. Instead of offering discount tickets and free lectures to young generations (as is the case with American opera houses), the Chinese Ministry of Education recently announced a pilot program of teaching Peking Opera in elementary and high schools. Fifteen carefully selected works from the Peking Opera repertoire have been added to the music curricula of 200 schools in ten provinces throughout China. This move immediately drew public attention, and the educational approach has spawned diverse opinion. A survey by Netease (news portal in China) shows that twenty-seven percent of the participants believe that such a course can foster a new generation of Peking Opera fans; seventeen percent think the course should not be compulsory, as students' opinions should be respected; if students are forced to learn, they will lose interest. Additionally, some question the high school teachers' abilities to cope with the challenges of teaching the selected repertoire, because Peking Opera is a sophisticated art form requiring years of professional training for one to attain proficiency.

Introducing Peking Opera into school curricula and getting students interested in the course can be challenging, especially when one considers that most young Chinese have been drawn to rock and pop music in a fashion similar to the phenomenon of American Idol in the United States. Serious procedures have been established to meet this challenge. The fifteen selected opera repertoires have been carefully reviewed by a panel of educators and other experts to ensure that the selections represent the great art form of Peking Opera, and can be meticulously taught to students in modern Chinese languages. Meanwhile, some professional outreach programs are available to help teach the projects in schools.

VOICE TRAINING AT EARLY AGES

Peking Opera has a tradition of training performers at early ages, usually between eight and twelve years old. Students are carefully selected to enter the Opera Garden, a Peking Opera school for an eleven year training program, which includes voice training (chanting and singing), body training (dancing and fighting), and general history and culture studies. …

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