Monkey King opera crowned a success in America
NEW YORK: The excitement and colour of traditional Chinese opera are recruiting new fans in the United States.
Sellout American audiences for the first time are enjoying the sounds and spectacle of full-dress Peking Opera, thanks to the International Monkey King Troupe.
The Beijing-based theatrical company is appearing in 41 public performances and student workshops at universities, schools and performing arts centres in 14 US cities during October and November. Their reception has been enthusiastic.
The tour is an outreach project of the East Asia Programme of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, with partial funding from the Freeman Foundation of Stowe, Vermont.
The 17-member International Monkey King Troupe draws on the talents of students, graduates and senior masters of the Academy of Chinese Traditional Opera. It is led by renowned Opera Master Zhang Shaohua and Ghaffar Pourazar, artistic director of Beijing's Zhengyici Opera House.
Pourazar, a British performer who was the first foreigner to complete the arduous training at the traditional opera academy, is conducting the company's student/teacher workshops in English.
The troupe's musicians and actors demonstrate basic moves, rhythms and acrobatics at the pre-performance workshops. Performances of three legendary Monkey King stories are preceded by commentary in English.
The performances include full traditional costumes and props, conventional painted faces, and the unique percussion instruments of Chinese Opera.
David Patt, director of Outreach for the Cornell East Asia Programme, estimates that more than 10,000 people will experience China's unique theatrical art form during the tour.
He credits a conference a year ago at the University of Buffalo, New York, at which Pourazar appeared, plus Cornell-based dance professor Jumay Chu with providing inspiration for the Peking Opera project.
Patt, a Buddhist studies specialist, says the idea was planted at the Buffalo conference, but actively cultivated at Ithaca by Chu, a long-time admirer of Chinese culture. He and Chu persuaded the Cornell University Centre for Theatre Arts to support the US tour.
Patt then organized the various engagements through an extensive e-mail campaign among professors and entertainment contacts across the country.
American audiences are experiencing three familiar stories originally collected in the 16th century novel "Journey to the West" by Wu Cheng'en. The stories are "The Dragon King's Palace," "The Iron Fan Princess" and "Havoc in Heaven."
Pourazar says these episodes were chosen because of their excitement, action and easy-to-follow simplicity.
"Imagine a small army of performers somersaulting across the stage, twirling spears and tossing swords, executing superb martial arts moves all the while singing melodiously, costumed in magnificent silk brocades and multi-coloured makeup," said Patt. "That is the wonder that audiences will find when they go to see 'The Adventures of the Monkey King.'"The stated mission of the International Monkey King Troupe is to make Peking Opera accessible to a worldwide audience. Their shows and workshops include introductions to the Peking Opera form, moves, poses and legendary history.
Parts of their performances are presented in English.
Opera Master Zhang Shaohua, co-director of the Monkey King Troupe, is a Master Teacher at the International Centre for Peking Opera. He is a retired member of the Beijing City Opera Troupe where he gained fame as one of the most talented and respected performers of the Warrior Clown character.
He is a disciple of famous Warrior Clown Zhang Chunhua. A former senior teacher at the traditional Chinese opera academy, he joined this year with Ghaffar Pourazar to open a new school of Peking Opera for Chinese and international students.
Zhang Ran, son of Master Zhang Shaohua, designed the sets and props and serves as prop master during the Monkey King shows.
Three senior master musicians with more than 120 years of combined experience accompany the current US tour. Conductor and lead percussionist Zhao Wanjing spent over 40 years as a musician and conductor with the Peking Opera Troupe.
He has served as musical director for several large productions, including the Peking Opera version of "Turandot" which toured Italy for two years.
Cymbalist Li Bochun and small gong player Yang Dianfa retired from the Beijing Fenglei Opera Troupe after more than 40 years of service each. Both trained from childhood in the traditional manner.
Big gong player Liu Rui, a graduate in traditional opera percussion from the traditional opera academy, is currently a member of the Fenglei Troupe. He records and edits traditional music using computers, has produced arts programmes for China Central Television, and engineered recorded music used in the Monkey King tour.
The Monkey King Troupe is international as various members of the company have toured in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Russia, the United States, South Korea and Japan.
Li Donghong, a member of the Inner Mongolian Opera Troupe, is a fifth-generation Peking Opera warrior performer. Highly regarded for the talents inherited from his father, Li Shaoxian, he has appeared in television and film roles as has been an assistant director and producer.
A founding member of the International Centre for Peking Opera, Chie Morimura was born in Japan. She graduated from the Tokyo Drama School and then trained at the Academy for Chinese Traditional Opera and the Zhengyici Opera House.
She accompanied Ghaffar Pourazar and Master Zhang Shaohua to the United States in 2003.
Six performers of the Monkey King Troupe are senior students at the Academy for Traditional Chinese Opera.
The International Monkey King American tour began October 1 and continues at 26 venues until November 18.
Full performances and workshops are scheduled for performing arts centres at Cornell University, St Lawrence University, the University of Buffalo, the Opera House at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Hamilton College, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the University of Rochester, Swarthmore College, Long Island's Boulton Centre, Purchase College, Stony Brook University, the Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Music Hall and New York University.
School performances and workshops will be presented in Ithaca, Canton, Bronx and Long Island, New York, Cleveland, Ohio, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Workshops for elementary and middle school teachers will be conducted at Ithaca, Rochester, New York and Philadelphia.
Accustomed to Western music and fast-paced television and cinema story lines, Americans rarely encounter other performance traditions. At first hearing the distinctive percussion sound and seeing the stylized poses and painted faces of Peking Opera, theatregoers here don't know quite how to react.
But once the action starts and the strangeness and pace become familiar US audiences warm to the spectacle and become willing participants. They find the traditional stories charming, the energy contagious and the posturing alternately dramatic or hilarious.
By the end of their initial exposure most leave the theatre wanting