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China to show propaganda Tibet opera at Olympics

Posted by Author on August 20, 2008

Jane Macartney in Beijing, The Times Online, UK, August 20, 2008-

“This is a wedding. It’s a festive occasion. Look happy, much happier. Do that scene again and this time let’s really feel your joy. Move the audience …”

The famed Peking Opera director Gao Mukun barked out his orders to the chastened cast of a show timed as a finale for the Beijing Olympics.

The Tibetan performers hooted with delight and kept their smiles in place for the last scene of Princess Wencheng — a joint Peking and Tibetan opera that will play in the Chinese capital for three days this week.

A decision to perform the tale of the marriage between a Chinese princess and a Tibetan king in the 7th century just when Beijing is playing host to visitors from around the world does not look like a coincidence.

The issue of Tibet marred Chinese plans for a triumphant Olympic torch relay around the world when international activists demanding independence for the Himalayan region seized the opportunity to draw attention to their cause by disrupting parades in cities from London to San Francisco.

They accused China of crushing dissent, while Beijing said that it exercised restraint after ugly riots by angry Tibetans in the capital, Lhasa, left 22 people dead, most of them ethnic Han Chinese.

The director was at pains to emphasise that the opera, a unique blend of two utterly different styles, was being staged on its artistic merits and not for its political undertones. “This is a work of art, not a lesson. Its aim is both to move the audience and to educate them.”

The slight, bespectacled Mr Gao, in his youth the star of one of the Cultural Revolution’s model operas commissioned by Madame Mao, has been involved in the project, the first of its kind, from the start.

He designed the first performance in Lhasa in 2005 to mark the 40th anniversary of the designation of Tibet as an autonomous region of China. He was not sure that two such different forms of opera could be combined. He is pleased with the results.

“Now you can say this is a perfect marriage between these two art forms just as the marriage of Princess Wencheng and King Songtsen Gampo was a marriage between the Chinese and Tibetan peoples.”

The opera was first commissioned by Zhou Enlai, the Prime Minister, as a propaganda tool to help Tibetans to appreciate Beijing’s rule after a failed 1959 uprising against Chinese domination in which Tibet’s god-king, the Dalai Lama, fled into exile in India.

It did not go down too well in those days, and still fails to resonate with many Tibetans who believe that the region already had a civilisation before the Chinese princess arrived in 640.

The Tibetan singer playing King Songtsen Gampo praised the creativity that brought together two very different types of opera for the Olympics: “This is a chance to publicise Tibetan opera, which we don’t have so many opportunities to show to the world and to foreigners.”

Some of his fellow performers who have travelled from Lhasa are less circumspect.

Asked if he was happy to be in the show, one man replied: “What choice do I have? It wasn’t so popular among all people in Tibet.”

Making a song and a dance

— The traditional Peking Opera repertoire has more than 1,000 works, mostly accounts of political struggles

— A modern Peking opera, Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, was one of eight plays authorised during the Cultural Revolution

— In 1998 China blocked the transport of six tonnes of sets, costumes and props of the 1598 opera Peony Pavilion to New York

Original: The Times Online

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