British Man Devotes Life to Mastering Beijing Opera

Ghaffar Pourazar i i

Ghaffar Pourazar, who is British of Azeri Iranian descent, has spent more than a decade mastering the art of Beijing opera. On the right, he wears makeup and costume for the role of the classic Chinese character the Monkey King. Louisa Lim, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Louisa Lim, NPR
Ghaffar Pourazar

Ghaffar Pourazar, who is British of Azeri Iranian descent, has spent more than a decade mastering the art of Beijing opera. On the right, he wears makeup and costume for the role of the classic Chinese character the Monkey King.

Louisa Lim, NPR
Pourazar plays the Monkey King on stage in the opera 'Monkey King Wreaks Havoc in Heaven' i i

Pourazar plays the Monkey King in the opera Monkey King Wreaks Havoc in Heaven, Pourazar's hybrid, bilingual production of the much-loved classic. Louisa Lim, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Louisa Lim, NPR
Pourazar plays the Monkey King on stage in the opera 'Monkey King Wreaks Havoc in Heaven'

Pourazar plays the Monkey King in the opera Monkey King Wreaks Havoc in Heaven, Pourazar's hybrid, bilingual production of the much-loved classic.

Louisa Lim, NPR
Pourazar warms up i i

Pourazar warms up before the production. In 1993, at age 32, he went to Beijing opera school for five years. He tested the limits of his body every day, in a class with students one-third his age. Louisa Lim, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Louisa Lim, NPR
Pourazar warms up

Pourazar warms up before the production. In 1993, at age 32, he went to Beijing opera school for five years. He tested the limits of his body every day, in a class with students one-third his age.

Louisa Lim, NPR

Forty years ago, 2,000 troupes crisscrossed China performing traditional operas, a unique blend of performing arts. Now, there are just 76 troupes, and Beijing opera is largely seen as a dying art. But it has an unlikely new champion: a British man who has devoted more than a decade to mastering Chinese opera and bringing it to new audiences.

"I saw Beijing opera in London in 1993, and it just shocked me. It really moved me," says Ghaffar Pourazar.

Pourazar is British, born to Iranian Azeri parents. At age 32, he gave up his life as a computer animator and enrolled in a Beijing opera school, drawn by the difficulty of mastering the art form.

Onstage, the actors not only act, they sing and dance while performing heart-stopping feats of acrobatics and sword fighting.

Pourazar spent five years undergoing punishing training at a school so dirty he describes it as a big toilet. He was decades older than the other students, and he tested his body on a daily basis, starting at dawn with unbelievably painful contortions.

Now, he is presenting a hybrid, bilingual opera production based on the much-loved legend of the Monkey King, a mischievious monkey born from a stone, who learns supernatural skills and uses them to challenge the Emperor of Heaven.

Although some old pros look down on him, Pourazar has earned the praise of many Chinese opera veterans and neophytes alike.

But the popularity of Beijing opera is fading fast, with young Chinese audiences turning to karaoke, DVDs and the Internet, much to Pourazar's sorrow.

"I used to get really angry at the state of the opera, angry at the Chinese people. This is yours, you made this, this incredible, beautiful thing. It's also you who are destroying it, who are forgetting it, throwing it away," he laments.

Pourazar has now decided what to do. He wants to reinvent Beijing opera for a wider audience. But it's a measure of just how great the problem is that the very innovations that may just keep Beijing opera alive also risk destroying its most traditional forms.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.