Opera in Beijing

China is seeing a revival of a popular form of theater

By: Jim Calio

My friend Gahffar leaned over my shoulder and pointed to the actors up on stage.

“See that guy,” he said, as an actor playing a Chinese colonel dressed in a bright yellow costume walked on stage. “He’s the bad guy, and he’s mad.”

We were sitting in the audience at the Changan Theater in Beijing.

The words coming from the stage were loud and unintelligible to me, but then they were in Chinese and seemed to be shrieked at a very high decibel level.

Ghaffar leaned over again and said, “Now watch what the other guy does. He’s the hero.”

This is the way to watch a typical performance of the Beijing opera, with someone who knows it well explaining it. Unfortunately, to most Western ears listening to Beijing Opera can be an excruciating experience, often likened to someone’s fingernails scratching down a blackboard.

But there’s a reason. Beijing opera, which began about 200 years ago during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), got its start in open-air markets and other public areas. The actors had to develop a loud, piercing sound to be heard over the noise and bustle of the crowds. And their garish costumes, which they have to this day, made them stand out on dim stages that were lit only by oil lamps.

Or, to put it another way: “The Beijing opera started in the streets where they had to compete with cats and dogs and noodle sellers. They had to make a terrific noise just to be noticed.”

Those words are spoken by an unlikely champion of modern-day Beijing opera. His name is Ghaffar Pourazar, and he is a 45-year-old British citizen of Iranian descent who has made reviving the Beijing opera, which is a dying art in China, his personal crusade.

“I saw the Beijing opera in London in 1993,” said Pourazar, while applying make-up that will transform him into one of the iconic figures in the Beijing opera, the Monkey King, “and it brought me to tears. It really moved me.”

In fact, Pourazar was so moved that he gave up his day job as a computer animator and moved to Beijing, where he knocked on the door of one of the opera schools and begged to be admitted. Eventually, he was, and after five years of often painful training (most actors begin training as young kids, when their bodies are more supple), he emerged as one of the primary performers in the Beijing opera, which has been reduced from 2,000 traveling troupes 40 years ago to just 76 now.

Beijing opera is one of many forms of Chinese opera, but it is thought to be the best, so every community in China at one time or another had its own Beijing opera troupe. It’s a combination of singing, acting and acrobatics, usually performed on a stage with an accompanying orchestra and percussion group. The stories are taken from historical novels about Chinese political and military struggles, and there are over 1,000 works that have been performed over the years.

To spread the word and keep the Beijing opera alive Pourazar has organized tours for his troupe all over the world, including several in the U.S. in the last few years. He thinks that by taking the performances out of China and even doing some of the dialogue in English and other languages, he can help audiences better understand the treasure that he believes the opera is.

“There is no other culture that has put so much discipline into training the perfect performer,” says Pourazar, his face transformed into a monkey’s, with white, red and black makeup. “And that’s what the Beijing opera is about the perfect performer.”


Most hotels in Beijing will arrange for tickets, but for a night at the opera with an English-speaking guide, visitors can contact Ghaffar Pourazar directly at beijingopera@yahoo.com.

Ticket prices vary and often include Chinese tea and sweets served at tables near the stage.

More information on the history of the Beijing opera can be found at www.beijingopera.info.