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George Town Festival: Beijing Opera Demystified

“I had to go through hell.”  That’s what Ghaffar Pourazar said to the audience at a workshop on Monday night.  “My teacher would make me do 500 kicks to both sides, and another 500 kicks forward. Then he would tie my foot to my head to stretch my leg.  This is just the basic training of Beijing Opera.  And we had to do this everyday.” 1,000 kicks every day?! He wasn't joking around.

Ghaffar, an Iranian-born British-raised man, who took a radical career change when he left his computer animation profession for Chinese Beijing Opera at the age of 32. He then spent the next five years undergoing a torturous training at the National Academy of Beijing Opera as the only Westerner and the oldest student in the class (most students start at the age of 8!). 
Together with Ghaffar at the workshop was the sweet Chie Morimura, a Japanese lady, who is also a founding member of the International Centre for Beijing Opera.
Both Ghaffar & Chie shared Sheng, Dan, Jing, Chou (Male, Female, Painted Face, Clown), the main characters of Beijing Opera to the Penang people, unveiling the secrets behind this dying art.

According to the duo, the Beijing Opera is the only art form that can truly represent China because it incorporates the varying elements in Chinese culture: singing, dancing, acting, face painting, stage fighting, history, literature and poetry, and acrobatics. “There is no specialisation in Beijing Opera.”

“The only reason I succeeded in Beijing Opera is because of one character.”  And we all knew immediately that it was for the much-loved character in the classical Chinese epic novel, Journey to the West, the Monkey King 孙悟空.  As Ghaffar described, he has a big nose and almost an uncanny face that was destined to play the mischievous Monkey King. “Even the Chinese enjoy watching me when I play the Monkey King.” 
As Ghaffar explained the elements of Beijing Opera, he and Chie took turns demonstrating to the 75 audience members.  I loved how Chie transformed into a Chinese woman warrior as she sang a Beijing Opera song and moved with each note.  Her Japanese demeanor disappeared the moment she started to perform.
As a Malaysian-Chinese, I had little understanding of Beijing Opera with the bright costumes and high-pitching singing.  Many of us, even the young people from China, had little knowledge of the meaning behind the movements, history, and metaphors of the performances.  Beijing Opera has been under-appreciated since the Cultural Revolution in China, but fortunately in recent years, the ancient art has regained the interest and attention of the world.

After meeting Ghaffar & Chie in person, I have gained a whole new admiration for Beijing Opera and its dedicated performers. Their skills and passion had me and every audience member there, wanting to learn and experience more of this performing art.

For more exciting entries on George Town Festival, please stay tuned.