Making Chinese opera an international music form

By Wen Zongduo, He Keyao ( ) Updated: 2015-04-27 11:11:00

Making Chinese opera an international music form

Liu and Guo Lanying performing Marriage of Xiao Erhei.[Photo provided to]

Liu Shiming’s life has been devoted to modern Chinese opera and folk hit singing, which the famous tenor believes must explore its ethnic folk music resources and win the hearts of own people to achieve global recognition, as Wen Zongduo and He Keyao report.

When then-Premier Zhou Enlai stopped dancing and approached the stage at a ball held at the National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts in Beijing, Liu Shiming had just finished the last note of The Horse Herdsmen’s Song. It was late 1959 and the academy was celebrating its 10th anniversary. Zhou’s presence was the icing on the cake at the ball, and Liu, still in his sophomore year, had sung at such occasions before.

The music was still playing and other dancers were still revolving with fast steps while Zhou stood in front of the stage which was slightly raised from the ground so the eyes of the taller Zhou were almost level with Liu’s. He held one arm in front of himself and stared at Liu with satisfaction.

"You have a good voice," he said. "Why did you come to Zhongxi (the theater academy),instead of a conservatory of music?"

"I like to sing traditional opera," Liu answered, noticing that Zhou was accompanied by a couple of students, but not by guards or officials.

"Fine," Zhou said gently with a smile, "but if you like, you can try singing opera." Liu understood the premier meant the Western style of opera that had just started to gain momentum in arts circles in New China.

Almost 56 years later, sitting on a large cozy couch at his home in the south of Beijing’s downtown, Liu remembered Zhou’s words and expressions clearly.

"Zhou’s brief advice left an imprint in my mind, but not in the heart," said the barrel-chested but pot-bellied tenor. "I’ve seldom mentioned it over the decades and would not have done so now, if you had not kept asking. I’ve been lying low in life and pursuing art for art’s sake," said the established actor-singer, pop hit singer and folk song artist.

Though Zhou’s remarks remained buried deep, life took a strange twist when Liu graduated. After seeing his peers assigned jobs by the college authorities, he was left in the dark. When he went to the academy office, he was told to go the Central Experimental Opera Troupe, the top one in New China at that time and the predecessor of today’s China National Opera and Dance Drama Theatre.

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