MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Beijing opera is largely seen as a dying art in China. Forty years ago 2,000 troops crisscrossed China performing traditional operas. Now there are just 76.
NPR's Louisa Lim wants to introduce us to the unlikely new champion for Chinese opera. He's a British man who's devoted more than a decade to bringing Chinese opera to new audiences.
LOUISA LIM: And elderly man in glasses squats at the side of the stage, tapping drumsticks together to keep time as actors whirl weapons through the air. The younger actors defer to a middle-aged man who's spinning a sword around the top of a long stick. It's a feat of balance, and rapt spectators do a double take when they realize the performer isn't even Chinese.
Mr. GHAFFAR POURAZAR (Beijing Opera Performer): I saw a Beijing opera in London in 1993, and it just shocked me. It really moved me.
LIM: Ghaffar 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 this art form.
Mr. POURAZAR: And there is no other culture, which has put that much discipline into training the perfect performer. That's what the Beijing opera is about. The perfect performer.
LIM: Onstage the actors not only act, they sing and dance, at the same time as performing heart-stopping feats of acrobatics and sword fighting. To get this far, Ghaffar 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 was testing his body on a daily basis, starting at dawn with unbelievably painful contortions.
Mr. POURAZAR: You lie down on a bench. One foot would be tied to the bench and then the other foot would be stretched all the way back to reach your forehead or your nose at 180 degrees. And then the teacher would just wrench that foot up and down until the muscles relax. And it does work. It's just that you have to go through that threshold of pain.
LIM: Once the show begins, it's clear that Pourazar has taken a Chinese classic and made it his own.
Unidentified Man: Hi, Grandpa, what are you doing?
Mr. POURAZAR: Painting my face. We have a show to do in a minute -
LIM: The cast is partly non-Chinese, and there's a lot of explanation in English.
Mr. POURAZAR: The (unintelligible) has three colors -
LIM: The story is the much-loved legend of the Monkey King, a mischievous monkey born from a stone, who learns supernatural skills and uses them to challenge the Emperor of Heaven. Pourazar is the multilingual monkey.
Mr. POURAZAR: (as Monkey) I can move it. You don't give it to me. You (unintelligible). Oh let me try.
It's within the rules of the art form that you perform for that audience. What I've done is by taking it to London to change the spoken parts into English. And that's within the rules of the art form.
(as Monkey) He's destroyed my party(ph) -
LIM: That even means adding a bit of comedy (unintelligible) opera to the mix.
Mr. POURAZAR: (as Monkey) I'm gonna slap that monkey, I'm gonna kill that monkey.
LIM: This is performed by the Queen of Heaven, Kimberly van Lout(ph), who's enjoying working with Pourazar.
Ms. KIMBERLY VAN LOUT (Queen of Heaven): He's got a striking resemblance to a monkey without the makeup. This role was made for him. This role was really made for him.
LIM: It's true. Pourazar does have something simian about him. On stage his eyes dart back and forth and his nose twitches. Nonetheless, Pourazar admits, some of the old pros still look down on him. But he earns praise from Vin Gran Ping(ph), tonight's Dragon King, who's been in the business 35 years.
Mr. VIN GRAN PING (Dragon King): (Speaking foreign language)
LIM: I really admire Ghaffar for making it this far, he says. It's not easy even for Chinese performers.
And this hybrid bilingual opera wins good reviews, from both western and Chinese audience members, like Glen Sieber(ph) and Han Son Lee(ph).
Mr. GLEN SIEBER: Surprising. It's very different from what I expected but I'm really enjoying it.
LIM: Have you seen Beijing opera in the past?
Mr. SIEBER: Never, never. I've always been put off by the threat of shrieking but I'm enjoying this.
Mr. HAN SON LEE: That's really Chinese stuff. Expressing the more acceptable way will be more popular.
LIM: 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.
Mr. POURAZAR: I used to get really angry at the state of the opera. I mean angry at the Chinese people. I just tell them that this is yours, you made this, this incredible, beautiful thing. And it's also you who are destroying it, who are forgetting it, throwing it away. What can I do?
(Soundbite of singing)
LIM: He's now decided what to do. This foreign Monkey King is a revolutionary (unintelligible), reinventing 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.
Louisa Lim, NPR News, Shanghai.
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