China's Peking Opera company marks anniversary with U.S. tour

Wed Aug 20, 2014 6:25pm EDT
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By Patricia Reaney

NEW YORK (Reuters) - With lavishly embroidered costumes, elaborate makeup and acrobatics, a troupe of nearly 90 singers, actors and musicians of the Peking Opera begins a special U.S. tour on Wednesday at New York's Lincoln Center.

Peking Opera, known as jingju in Chinese, is the country's national form of theater, combining unique storytelling, acrobatics, acting and martial arts with Chinese singing and dance.

The tour by the Jingju Theater Company of Beijing, with performances in New York and Washington, is timed to mark the 120th anniversary of the birth of China's greatest opera star, Mei Lanfang, who introduced his art form to U.S. audiences nearly 90 years ago.

"This tour is special because it is by the particular troupe that is the direct artistic inheritor of Mei Lanfang's art," said Elizabeth Wichmann-Walczak, an expert on the art form who directs the Asian theater program at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu.

Mei Lanfang toured the United States in 1930 and is credited with revolutionizing the tradition of men performing female roles. He created a unique style known as the "Mei Lanfang School."

"It was the first time that it was seriously introduced in the United States by an important artist and company," Wichmann-Walczak said about the U.S. tour, adding that Mei Lanfang was celebrated by theater and film stars of the time.

His 80-year-old son, Mei Baojiu, one of China's top opera stars, organized the program for the current U.S. tour, which follows in his father's footsteps. It includes five shorter plays each featuring a major female character that would have been played by his father, and a full-length production.

All of the plays were created by Mei Lanfang, who died in 1961 at age 66.   Continued...

A Peking opera troupe performs at the 49th International Festival of Carthage at the Roman Theatre of Carthage in Tunis July 14, 2013. REUTERS/Anis Mili