Painted faces

By Raymond Zhou(China Daily) Updated: 2012-09-11

Gefa recounts an incident in the early 1990s. Guan Sushuang, a prominent Peking Opera performer known for her warrior roles, was once invited to appear in a television variety show. She was paid 100 yuan for it. But the young pop singer who appeared alongside her was given several hundred times that amount.

"With the 100 yuan, Guan bought a few bottles of liquor, and the next day they found her dead next to the empty bottles," Gefa says.

Gefa knows firsthand how much training a great master like Guan must have invested before she could attain her level of artistic height. He was 32 when, in 1993, he caught a Peking Opera performance on tour in London. He was so awestruck that he gave up his job as a computer animator and packed up and left for Beijing to study with that same opera company.

Life in Beijing was hard then, and training was even harder. Most of his classmates were half or even a third his age.

Gefa specializes in the warrior category, and his signature role is the Monkey King. Whenever he has an international audience, he will sprinkle his dialogue with English narration. Although the projection of subtitles is popular in China, and even Chinese lyrics are displayed, Gefa is not crazy about this.

He thinks the subtitles distract the audience and the English subtitles cannot convey the nuances of the language.

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Having studied theater arts in the United Kingdom, Gefa is familiar with the stylized delivery of lines in traditional plays such as Shakespeare. He has used the similarity between the two art forms and come up with his own way of line reading.

It sounds like Peking Opera when you first hear it, but listen harder and it is English - somewhat like the recitative lyrics of Italian opera, with a vague melodic line beneath highly enhanced words.

The Peking Opera Demystified show, which Gefa created and which uses this approach, has become a hit. He has been taking it to universities and international festivals, including the upcoming International Design Festival at Beijing's 798 Art Zone at the end of September. In the show Gefa describes Peking Opera history, techniques and characters through many different characters he performs.

As Gefa recalls, there were a few foreigners who studied Peking Opera seriously in Beijing in the early 1990s. Then they dropped out one by one. However, Chinese television stations love to paint up foreign faces and push them onto the stage after some cursory training.

"And Chinese audiences applaud loudly no matter what the standards," Gefa complains.

On top of that, he is not happy that pop culture in China has bred a coterie of foreigners who thrive on a few gimmicks such as telling Chinese jokes, performing cross-talk or singing Chinese pop tunes.

Gefa first appeared on the star-making New Year's Eve gala in 1996, but as a serious Peking Opera artist, his chances of raking in the big money is more limited, compared with other foreign performers.

In fact, he sounds just like one of the old guard who has devoted an entire life to Peking Opera and is pained to see it being eroded by newer and flashier forms of entertainment. Like the Chinese masters who suffer for their art, "I suffer all the same, but in a foreign world," Gefa admits.