Foreign youth get a taste of Chinese operas


International students experience traditional Chinese operas in Shanghai. [Photo/Shanghai Observer]

Unlike many foreign visitors who made whirlwind tours, 30 international students have had a more immersive experience of Chinese culture by spending nearly a month learning about traditional Chinese operas. 

Among the foreign students who attended the Chinese opera summer course held by the Shanghai Theatre Academy were Chinese culture aficionados as well as first-time visitors. 

"Chinese operas are completely different from European theatres, from their distinctive vocal techniques to purposeful movements. It's difficult (to grasp the skills), but it's also very interesting," said Daria Oganesova, an undergraduate student from St. Petersburg State University.

Even though she is a student majoring in Chinese history, this was the first time that Daria experienced traditional Chinese operas.


Students practice before performing. [Photo/Shanghai Observer]

In the eyes of Kayla Grace Hamilton-Dick, an exchange student from the Unitec Institute of Technology of New Zealand, Chinese operas are "profound and complex" and she had to practice hard after class to master the movements. 

Despite the hardships encountered in learning Chinese operas, all the foreign students completed their "graduation performances".

"The foreign students have shown a keen interest in traditional Chinese culture, and they were very diligent," said Li Qiuping, one of the teachers of the course. "When classes began at 1:30 pm, they would arrive at 1 pm to review their movements. They also did extra practice at night."


Li Qiuping signals a movement to the students on stage. [Photo/Shanghai Observer]

To help the international students better understand the cultural aspects of Chinese operas, Li Qiuping, an opera artist with nearly 50 years of teaching experience, would first tell the students the stories behind the scripts. 

For example, before teaching the popular Peking Opera song Ode to Pear Flowers, she told the students how the heroine Yang Guifei, one of the four beauties of ancient China and a beloved consort of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang Dynasty (618-907), was forced to commit suicide during the An Lushan Rebellion. After learning this, the students had a better understanding of the emotions they needed to convey during their performance. 

When the students performed Mu Guiying Takes Command, Li told the students how the female general Mu Guiying heroically fended off thousands of enemies with her sword. 

Li does not treat the Chinese opera program for foreign students as merely an "interest class". "Now that they have signed up for the course, they should perform every movement well," she said. Since students from Europe and the United States tended to rush in making the moves, Li often reminded them to "slow down", and to move like soft and smooth waves of water while wearing water sleeves. 


Students practice on stage. [Photo/Shanghai Observer]

The Shanghai Summer School Chinese Opera Course was established in 2011 and has since held 13 successful editions. 

In the breaks during the summer course, the Shanghai Theatre Academy arranged for the students to experience other traditional Chinese art forms.

The puppet show Chameleon, an adaptation of the novel of the same title by Anton Chekhov, impressed Daria. "The show retains the humor of the original story. When watching it, I even forgot it was a puppet show. It is an amazing experience to watch a Russian opera story through the lens of an oriental culture," she said. 


A teacher reminds students about details before the performance. [Photo/Shanghai Observer]

Zhang Yunlei, a teacher from the Shanghai Theatre Academy, said it is the international students that inspired them to keep hosting this course over the last decade. After completing the course, many students became a bridge between China and the rest of the world. Some went on to write books about Chinese operas, and some filmed documentaries about Chinese operas.  

"We keep talking about Chinese culture going out, when in fact, we should let foreigners in and let them learn Chinese culture for themselves. This way, they will promote it from their perspectives, which is much more efficient," said Zhang. 


Source: Shanghai Observer 

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