“Chinese opera, performed by professional artists and organizations. as a typical traditional art form of the Chinese community, has a history of more than 30 years in the United States. The history of opera art salons centered on fans is even longer,” said Junqing Li, a Chinese opera artist. “I will say that it has become a cornerstone of the American culture of arts.”
How can these art forms outside of the mainstream survive the pandemic? “Before the epidemic, Chinese opera was a treasure of cultural heritage for people. But after Covid, everyone is struggling to survive, and artists need to think about how to connect themselves to the local community and bring real and useful help.” Junqing said. Building appreciation for artistic value is difficult for any traditional artform, so more artists who love it need to keep exploring.
“I am trying to find the function and role of Chinese opera in the community. “Junqing said, “Cultivating young performers and audiences and showing the youthful and bright side of this art is an important part of community culture, and it is also popular in society at large. Many Chinese opera organizations in New York and Philadelphia have made much effort and have achieved great success.”
To make this traditional art form come alive in the community, Junqing actively participated in many opera performances, such as the summer concert of NYCOS and the first Online Kunqu Opera Concert on the East Coast, and actively participated in various Chinese organizations with essential roles. Now he is the program manager of the New York Chinese Opera Society and a member of the board of directors of the Philadelphia Chinese Opera Society. At the same time, he is now also being invited to give lectures and performances in major schools and universities, serving as a judge for many performances, actively promoting and developing this art in various communities, and enhancing the exchange, learning, and understanding among different ethnic groups.
Junqing calls for more people to develop an awareness of specialized cultural practices such as Chinese opera, which exists in the United States and has become an essential part of Asian American culture. “As a Chinese opera artist, we should think about how to communicate with more art forms in the melting pot of American multiculturalism in the years ahead.”
The 15th Winter Cultural Exchange Festival host by New York Chinese Opera Society. Full Version of the Peking Opera: The Riverwatch Pavilion https://youtu.be/yKHkRfJrpxA
The New York Chinese Opera Society, Inc. (NYCOS) is a nonprofit organization consisting of volunteers, opera admirers, trained artists and musicians. We believe and appreciate that Chinese Opera with its known historical significance is an important and integral part of Chinese heritage. This art form that so richly rooted in our culture is sorely in need of our support before it becomes a lost art. We also believe that through the efforts of organizations such as ours, the traditions of Chinese Opera with its distinct style of music, singing, instrumentation and staging can be preserved and enhanced.
Recently, people of Asian descent have been the victims of racist attacks, unfairly scapegoated for spread of Covid-19. Early Music Seattle stands with Asian Americans. We take this moment to celebrate the Asian musicians that devote their lives to studying, promoting, and preserving the ancient music of Asia. As reported in an earlier article, I had the pleasure of seeing this commitment first hand as I traveled to China last spring to study and perform Chinese music from the Tang Dynasty, participating in the Tang Music Revival, a project spearheaded by Professor Weiping Zhou of the Shanghai Conservatory. Weiping has commissioned a group of Tang era instruments constructed on a combination of iconography and surviving instruments. He brings scholars and performers from around the world to work with students in the classroom and in musical ensembles to further an understanding of Tang Dynasty music.
Here in the USA several musical organizations take a variety of approaches to ancient Chinese music. The Ba Ban Chinese Music Society, based in New York City, brings a folk and classical music lens to its work. They have deep roots in the Chinese community in Queens, performing many free concerts in libraries and community centers, as well as teaching in area schools.
The Eurasia Consort, based in New York City and Seattle, takes an approach to ancient music that would be familiar to Western-oriented early music performers, paying great attention to historical instruments, repertoire, and performance styles. Tomoko Sugawara, co-director and kugo harpist with the group, devises detailed arrangements of Tang music based on scholarly editions and the idiomatic performance characteristics of a variety of instruments depicted in Chinese visual art. The Eurasia Consort goes a step further, commissioning new works by contemporary composers such as Bun-Ching Lam and Alice Shields (Both premieres were cancelled due to the spread of Covid-19). Very much a part of the world of mainstream early music, the ensemble performed on the 3Gotham Early Music Scene (GEMS) Midtown Series in January 2019 and again in September 2019.
As the world braces for the onslaught of Covid-19, we do so shoulder to shoulder with our Asian colleagues, both at home and abroad, and we vow to protect them and their interests in the challenging days ahead. We celebrate the richness and texture they bring to early music.
Ba Ban Chinese Music Society – Click to view video
The Eurasia Consort at the Midtown Concerts, New York City – Click image to view video
Focus on Asia An ongoing series of recognizing the contributions of Asians and Asian Americans in the preservation of ancient music traditions.
The Seattle Chinese Orchestra The Seattle Chinese Orchestra (SCO) is the only traditional Chinese Orchestra in the Pacific Northwest. Formed in 1984, its mission is to advocate and promote traditional Chinese music to the Western world. Directed by the internationally recognized erhu virtuoso Warren Chang and conducted by Roger Nelson, the SCO offers instruction and performance opportunities to anyone of any age interested in learning traditional Chinese instruments. With over 50 musicians participating, the SCO performs annually in a variety of venues including Benaroya Hall. The ensemble includes not only Chinese musicians but also Americans who are lovers of Chinese culture and well-versed in Chinese music.
Click image: Northwest Guzheng Orchestra: Celebrating A Great Harvest
Seattle Chinese Orchestra: Medley of Ethnic Folksongs
Click here for more information about Chinese Arts and Music Association
The Ba Ban Chinese Music Society of New York By Gus Denhard
Founded in 1999, the Ba Ban Chinese Music Society of New York is dedicated to the preservation, creation, and presentation of Chinese traditional and contemporary performing arts. Named after an ancient piece of folk music, “Ba Ban” literally means “Eight Beats” which is the structural basis for the grouping of notes in traditional Chinese music. The ensemble includes highly accomplished artists who graduated from the top conservatories in China and have performed in concert halls around the world. The ensemble performs on silk and bamboo instruments, a classical instrumental grouping dating from the Qing dynasty (1636-1912) that includes various dizi (bamboo flutes), sheng (mouth organ), pipa (lute), qin (seven-stringed zither), ruan (alto lute), huqin (fiddles) and yangqin (dulcimer). In 2015, the group was recognized by the New York City Council for exemplary cultural service to the community.
I had an opportunity to talk to Zhou Yi, a renown pipa (Chinese lute) artist and one of the two founders of Ba Ban Chinese Music Society of New York. She spoke to me from her studio in New York City.
GD: How did you come to meet your founding partner, Yimin Miao, and what inspired you to create the Ba Ban Chinese Music Society?
ZY: Miao and I both studied music at the Shanghai Conservatory but did not meet until we came to New York City where a lot of Chinese professional musicians have settled. We saw an opportunity to perform the traditional Jiangnan sizhu repertoire of the Shanghai region, a cultural background that we shared. It was relatively easy to connect with excellent traditional Chinese musicians in New York; we mostly met them by attending concerts. Miao had studied the traditional flutes in Shanghai, and he also knew of some musicians who had moved here.
GD: Take me back to the early days of your development as musicians. What was your education like in Shanghai?
ZY: In my student days it was very competitive to enter a conservatory. Of the 1,000 applicants for pipa, two were selected to enter the program. Selection was based on very competitive tests and auditions. Also in those days, many of the old masters were still teaching; there are fewer of them living now. If you played a traditional instrument like pipa, you were also required to play a Western instrument, in my case piano. There are two tracks in conservatory, traditional Chinese and Western. Now it’s required for students, especially composers, to have a minor in a Chinese instrument since there is a trend to blend the Western and Chinese styles in new compositions. Many students decide to continue their studies in the West.
GD: Please tell me how you approach the ancient music of China? What guides the decisions you make about how to perform the music? And how does the audience respond?
ZY: We pick instruments that are appropriate to the period of the music we perform. For example, the music of the Tang Dynasty and the Qing Dynasty require different instruments, and the repertoire is different also. Sometimes we program based on the period, but often use themes that are more creative and attractive to our audience that are designed to educate them about Chinese history and culture.
For 20 years we have been playing concerts in public libraries and have developed some very attractive programs. Many have a theatrical aspect, combining visual elements, costumes, and lights. One themed concert about the Yangtse River recreates a tea house on stage! Other themes include Chinese pop music from the 1930s, and music for Chinese New Year. Before concerts we distribute articles about the history and meaning of the music via WeChat, the popular Chinese social media platform. Popular articles are often shared a thousand times. Then when people come, they are ready to appreciate the concert.
GD: I know you have professional musicians in your ensemble, but can students participate also?
ZY: Yes, part of our mission is to spread the traditions of Chinese music. We teach several small group classes, and when students reach an advanced level, they may perform with the group. We have three students playing with us currently. Our idea is to pass the knowledge on so the music can continue for generations.
GD: How is your organization dealing with the challenges of Covid-19?
ZY: Of course our public concerts, workshops, and school programs are cancelled, so we are focusing on online presentations and teaching. We have no other choice. But we will survive and will be ready to resume our work in the future.
Chinese Opera is a performing art in China, bringing together music, literature, drama and visual art. It represents the quintessence of traditional Chinese culture. The New York Chinese Opera Society (NYCOS) was founded in 2006 as a non-profit and has engaged many people interested in Chinese Opera and in Chinese culture in general. Its mission is to introduce and promote Chinese traditional opera, increasing its popularity in the U.S. Since its founding, NYCOS has organized many cultural events, including public performances, community activities, and workshops, bridging cultural differences, and fostering diversity. In furtherance of its mission, the NYCOS Youth Troupe and the Calligraphy Program, as functions under NYCOS, provide opportunities for greater engagement in traditional Chinese culture..
For this article I interviewed Junqing Li, Program and Business Development Director for the New York Chinese Opera Society.
GD: I understand NYCOS is one of a few Chinese opera companies in the USA. I think that it is important work that your organization is doing, not only preserving this ancient tradition, but passing it on to the next generations. Can you give a brief history of the art form of Chinese opera and why it is important to preserve and share it?
JL: Chinese Opera is an imaginative and symbolic performing art in China, amalgamating music, literature, drama, and visual art. It represents the quintessence of traditional Chinese culture.
NYCOS’s focus is Peking Opera performance, which is one of the five significant forms of opera in China, regarded as the high point of Chinese traditional theatrical culture. Peking Opera began to develop rapidly in the Qing dynasty and enjoyed unprecedented prosperity up to the present time.
The symbolic staging for Peking opera sets the tone for the singing, which is accompanied by Jinghu (Chinese Violin), gongs, and drums mainly. There are four interlocking artforms in Chinese opera performance: singing, speaking, dancing, and martial arts. According to the singing voice and characters, the opera developed four kinds of roles: Sheng (male characters), Dan (female characters), Jing (Characters with particular temperaments), and clown (humorous characters). Based on these elements, Peking opera uses a comprehensive performing style to tell the story. On November 16, 2010, Beijing Opera was listed as one of the world’s priceless cultural treasures. It has become a critical medium to introduce and spread traditional Chinese art and culture around the world.
Peking opera is not only a historical Eastern performing art form but also a combination of etiquette, civilization, history, and wisdom from Chinese culture. The meaning of preservation is not only for art but also for the values of being a great human under the perspective of Eastern values. Through the protection and sharing of the Chinese opera, we believe it lets young people in the Chinese community best understand their traditions and arts and be more confident about their cultural identity. Also, it brings a deep understanding of Chinese and Eastern Asian culture to other ethnicities. At the same time, we enrich the art scene in Chinese communities and the cultural diversity in the New York Tri-state area by our community events, cultural exchange events, and Youth Troupe events.
GD: What was the original vision for starting the company, and who else participated in its creation?
JL: The mission of the New York Chinese Opera Society (NYCOS) is to catalyze the promotion and artistic development of Chinese culture and opera and create opportunities for enjoyment, understanding, and appreciation by all people. The organization started under the direction of the former artistic director Xiangsheng Cao, the former president Chi Chu and the treasurer Daniel Yu. They started the company by providing high-qualified Peking opera performance to the community while enhancing the cultural communications between the East and the West. They valued community service and created an environment of understanding, appreciation, and art enjoyment both inside and outside of the community. After a 14-year development, now it still performs its mission to preserve and share this art to the city while cultivating the interests of younger generations from different communities, towns, and countries in Chinese opera and culture.
GD: The company has an extensive youth program and also a calligraphy program. What are the goals of these programs, and who are the instructors? What do you hope to pass on to young people?
JL: In the beginning these programs were used to enrich our Sunday activities with the goal of attracting young students as a means of promoting and advancing Chinese opera and culture. These programs were highly successful from the beginning, particularly with the foreign students from China furthering their studies in Western science and art, attending colleges such as NYU and Columbia University. It gives them the opportunities to reconnect with traditional Chinese culture while away from home. These programs also attract local youngsters who are interested in Chinese culture. Right now, most core members and instructors of the Youth Troupe and calligraphy classes are Chinese international students and local young professionals dedicated to traditional culture. They create a platform for communication and exhibition and foster a sense of community among young people by showcasing opera performance and hosting workshops in schools. We also invite famous local Chinese opera performers and calligraphy professors to do lectures. The Youth Troupe and calligraphy class raise interest among the young people and bring in new talent to promote Chinese art and culture in the American campuses and diversify the New York cultural scene, especially in the younger generation. Our goal is to pass both the refined art skills, the traditional etiquette, civilization, history, and wisdom from Chinese culture to the youth.
GD: You obviously have a strong following with many supporters and participants. Who typically attends the performances and classes you offer? Why do they appreciate your work?
JL: Our supporters and participants come from lots of fields. Most audiences come from Chinese communities in New York, New Jersey, and even Pennsylvania. Most of our class attendees are international students, scholars, and professionals who are interested in Chinese culture. Our supporters include business owners who love Chinese culture and who want to support the Chinese community. We also have lots of supporters from college faculty members who are devoted to Eastern traditional arts research. I believe that the most attractive thing for them is our pure and refined Chinese opera performances. It isn’t easy to see a professional, detailed, and excellent Peking opera performance in the city, but our organization makes it possible. We provide the community and the city a chance to enjoy this ancient art. At the same time, as more and more youth join our society it makes the translation and explanation of our work easier and more comfortable to other ethnicities. In this way we provide a platform for communication and thought exchange. These young people bring new perspectives and fresh ideas to our work, energizing the ancient arts. With everyone’s effort in this organization, we have been very successful with Chinese opera performance, calligraphy exhibition, and traditional culture lectures. And with support from the community, we believe there are more and more possibilities in the future.
GD: The Covid-19 crisis has been a tremendous challenge for arts organizations. How is NYCCOS responding in this difficult time?
JL: Recently, under the impact of COVID-19, all events are held under government control. NYCOS’s office has been closed since March to protect lives, and we canceled all physical activities. Instead, we conduct online Chinese opera lectures and calligraphy classes through live broadcast platforms such as Youtube, Dou Yu, CCTalk, and WeChat. In other words, we still try our best to keep the weekly event schedule, sharing Chinese culture to the community. The future will depend duration of the “City Pause.” We will try our best to get back to regular physical events when the city becomes safe again.