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Tang spreads the word about opera

NO embroidered silk costumes. No colorful make-up. No traditional stage. With only a CD of background music, a middle school music teacher in Beijing is singing a male vocal piece from Peking Opera to her class.

Several boys chuckle as the No. 35 Middle School teacher, Tang Min, makes fists with her slim fingers to give a male salute in Peking Opera style to the audience.

"This piece depicts Qin Qiong, a military officer, who was wronged and banished far away from home. But he was still grateful for his superior's past guidance, and was worried about not being able to look after his old mother," she says, telling the story of the famous aria "When the son is away, the mother will pray."

Moved by the story, the boys stop chuckling.

"Peking Opera is a charming art that carries forward traditional Chinese culture and morals. Even if my students could not perform it, at least they could appreciate it with due respect," Tang said after the class.

Long regarded as a cultural treasure of China, in recent years audience numbers have been decreasing and, due to lack of funding, the fate of Peking Opera has been in question.

Last year, the Ministry of Education started a pilot program to introduce it in schools.

In March 2008, more than 100 music teachers from schools across the country went to Shenyang, capital of Liaoning Province, for three days of tuition from professionals. Tang was one of them.

"I didn't even have any interest in it before," Tang said. "Every time I saw Peking Opera on the TV, I would turn to another channel at once.

"The schedule was really tense, learning 15 arias in three days with different music and performing styles. "But I began to read books about Peking Opera and now I can't even move from my TV when Peking Opera is on."

"Although teachers like Tang may not produce professional Peking Opera actors, they could pass on this cultural heritage of China, and nurture children's sense of national identity," said Wang Ankui, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Arts.

Wang Jun, head of the Art Education Office of Beijing Municipal Commission of Education, said Beijing was to invest 800,000 yuan (US$117,000) in new teaching texts. "The aim of the books is to enlarge teachers' knowledge about the ancient art, and provide a teaching model for them to refer to," Wang said.

Earlier this month, Tang took her class to the National Center for the Performing Arts to take part in the Youth Arts Week.

"The students sang 'When the son is away, the mother will pray' and seemed captivated by it," said Tang. "At that time, my tears fell: I knew I had accomplished an important mission for a teacher."


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