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When the Indigenous No Longer Is

Clemente Ladrido
Clemente Ladrido, MBA, MPhil, is Director, Finance and Administration, at The Norman Lear Center


As the fastest growing market for just about everything, China continues to sate the appetite for entertainment of a populace whose disposable income has grown exponentially in such a short time. Outlets in China rise everywhere, be they cinema multiplexes, shopping malls, sports arenas, or gaming centers. Now add opera venues to these.

China is experiencing an opera renaissance and it appears that everyone, well almost everyone, in the opera world gains. As a lot of new opera houses open, there will be demand for singers. A musical exchange program called "I Sing Beijing" currently hosts 20 Western performers whose brief is twofold: bring Western productions to the local audiences, and learn and interpret the classical Chinese opera style in Mandarin for export to the rest of the world.

Commerce, of course, dictates a significant aspect of this undertaking. Western artists hope to advance their careers through a platform that ensures some financial security, a situation that is getting more difficult in the West as opera's presence in the contemporary landscape gradually dims and funding sources become scarce. Capitalizing on its newly acquired wealth, China intends to regenerate the classical Chinese opera through productions that hope to entertain a global contemporary audience.

Who loses? I think it is not so much a question or a case of loss as it is of transformation, or redefinition of the indigenous, in this case, traditional Chinese opera with its highly stylized productions and an unmistakable musicality of shrillness and tension. In an effort to preserve the genre, it is necessary to contemporize it, to infuse it with elements that conform to the times, to let it move along its continuum.

This art form that traces its roots to the third century CE was curtailed in the mid-sixties during the Cultural Revolution when Mao required strong representation

of and conformity to his political agenda. The ensuing operatic products were hybrids skewed to mandated Red Chinese sentiments. Less than fifty years later, China wants to share its homegrown opera with the rest of the world and what better way than training Western singers to sing in Mandarin and allowing the form to absorb some Western opera vernacular in the process.

This is not innovation on a grand scale, but it is innovative nonetheless. Here, the medium is massaged to adapt to contemporary culture. To appeal to as large an audience as possible, it needs to fulfill a somewhat dichotomous wish list: on the one hand, re-packaging it as an accessible art form that the local audience can embrace; on the other, proving to the rest of the world that it can rank with the highest art forms.

Why should we care? The dynamics of present day communication are articulated through an almost infinite array of global resources. As forms of entertainment continue to strike a balance between art and commerce, they also strive to retain the characteristics attributed to their geneses. Indigenous artistic expressions, with their intrinsic intention to entertain, continue to evolve. Their preservation requires gradual, or in some cases, revolutionary recasting for them to remain both timely and sustainable. Innovation is vital to keeping indigenous art forms alive, even if it requires losing some original features.

Innovation in the arts is not something new but in China's case, it is a focus of attention both domestically and internationally. With an economic growth rate that shows no signs of abatement, China is able to pour money into practically anything. On a global scale, this gives rise to an opportunity for other countries and cultures to address their own indigenous art forms by partnering with the wealthy Chinese through lucrative cultural exchanges. Thus, the indigenous may no longer be, but still is.

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