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July 29, 2011

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Operatic class acts

AROUND 300 foreign students attend the monthlong Shanghai Summer School program, learning about Chinese culture - from opera to calligraphy to ping pong - at the expense of the city government. Xu Wei reports.

Gowri Krishnan, a college freshman from Malaysia, used to attend Peking Opera performances back home, but the singing, the music and stylized postures all seemed very strange.

After three weeks' study of traditional Chinese opera and culture at the Shanghai Theater Academy, however, Krishnan says she now appreciates the beauty of the opera. And she can perform several complicated excerpts from traditional opera on her own, and in costume. She hopes to become a theater director in Malaysia.

Krishnan is one of around 300 foreign students whose expenses are paid by the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission to study Chinese culture for a month in the city. They receive a scholarship of 10,000-12,000 yuan (US$1,470-1,765) to cover tuition and accommodation. Most stay longer.

The aim is to promote traditional Chinese culture (opera, calligraphy, music, language, painting, martial arts and so on) and to improve understanding of China and friendship between countries. Many students speak no Chinese and are visiting China. For many, it is an eye-opening visit that changes perceptions.

"The annual program offers foreigners a rare chance to learn about China and its distinctive culture and arts," says Yang Weiren, an official of the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission. "Many students find it a rewarding experience and want to continue their education in China."

In addition to the Shanghai Theater Academy, other schools and colleges are taking part in the program, including Fudan University, the Shanghai Conservatory of Music and Shanghai University of Sport. Classes cover a range of subjects, from folk music to ping pong.

Around 20 students from 10 countries are focusing on traditional opera, with supplementary courses in language and culture. They learn opera steps and postures, graceful "water sleeve" routines and spear and sword routines. They rehearse selected scenes. They attend operas and take field trips.

"The performing experience is very useful to me since I want to be a theater director," says Krishnan. "Peking Opera is so new. Many settings and props are unreal, so you have to use your imagination and abstract pantomime and body language to express emotion and meaning."

But the fare goes beyond traditional opera. During a rehearsal last week, Krishnan played Lady Julie in the experimental Peking Opera adaptation of Strindberg's 1888 play "Miss Julie" that shocked Europe with its frank sexuality. The Peking Opera version is a bit tamer. Dialogue is in English but singing is in Chinese.

In the play about love, lust, class and gender, noblewoman Julie asks a servant, Jean, to brush her shoes - a shocking class transgression.

"I will give you a special reward," says Julie who is known for dancing with servants on a Midsummer's night.

"What reward?" asks Jean, played by Raksak Kongseng, a junior at a Thailand university.

"I'll let you kiss my..." Julie continues.

"What?" Jean says.

"My socks," Julie concludes.

Krishnan's coach tells her to fill her eyes with fire and assume more natural poses.

Her partner Kongseng says his role is less difficult but it's still challenging to present authentic operatic dialogues and monologues and to sing.

According to their teacher Xu Jiali from the Shanghai Theater Academy, the students perform excerpts from the classic Peking Opera "A Fisherman's Struggle," a new Peking Opera "Students of Confucius and Mencius" and "Miss Julie."

The students will deliver a graduation performance tonight and receive diplomas and certificates from the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission and the theater academy.

"Most students have no learning experience in Peking Opera before, but they really work hard and practicing a few hours a day," says Xu, who teaches in English. "It's hard for anyone to perform opera excerpts in such a short time. Their movements appear a bit rigid and sometimes they fail to keep up with the accompanying music."

American Jane Hernandez says she was not used to the harsh and high-pitched sounds of traditional instruments played in Peking Opera, but now she finds the sound beautiful and likes the singing.

Students say they appreciate the graceful symbolic movements of "water sleeve" costumes and the smooth and forceful movements of the sword and spear.

"I have learned that I am highly uncoordinated," says Victoria Leigh, who is majoring in Chinese language at Leeds University in the UK. "My most unforgettable experience will probably be when we perform on stage in full costume and makeup."

Leigh says she plans to study for a master's degree in Chinese language, possibly in China, and to adopt a Chinese child.

Maja-Stina Wang, a young actress, director and theater teacher from Sweden, is an interpreter and teaching assistant. Wang is married to a Chinese man and has lived in China for five years. She says her job is to act as a bridge between the teacher and students since she knows how to make the lessons more lighthearted and appealing to foreigners.

"We try to be more humorous and easy to understand," says Wang. "Students can choose which character to play and most of their dialogues are in English, though they must sing in Chinese."

Professor Sun Huizhu, vice president of the Shanghai Theater Academy and a noted theater expert, teaches basic principles and aesthetics of Chinese theater.

"The program can provide a basic and descriptive guide to traditional Chinese theater and this will aid in their future study," says Sun. It is possible that the summer program will be included in an international network credit system with foreign colleges so that students can get course credit, he says.

Krishnan from Malaysia says that before her visit, her friends back home scared her by saying that without knowing any Chinese she might get lost and have to sleep in the street. But she found Shanghai to be modern and international and said many people are very friendly and willing to offer a hand.


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