Sarah Xie and Mei Wang are sisters-in-law who share a love of Beijing Opera. This mutual affection inspired them to become two of the founding members of the DC Beauty of Beijing Opera Ltd. (DCBBO), a nonprofit organization that strives to promote Beijing Opera through performances and education. Beijing, or Peking, Opera emerged in the 18th century and involves singing, speaking, dancing, miming, and acrobatics. The stories told in performances of Beijing Opera are rooted in Chinese history. Therefore, the performances are both a form of entertainment and education.
Xie believes that it is essential to share and preserve Beijing Opera. She says:
[Because] we’re fans of Beijing Opera . . . [DCBBO] started from there and then we [thought] about [how] we should do more than just to satisfy ourselves, [but] to let people know it because this is really the arts. This actually has been 200 years of history [and] right now [it] is world heritage. It’s identified as [intangible] world heritage.
Wang says that the DCBBO shares the Beijing Opera tradition through lectures, performances, and interaction so that audiences can learn not only about the art form, but about Chinese culture, history, and philosophy. Most of their audience members are non-Chinese students who may not otherwise be exposed to Beijing Opera. Xie and Wang believe this presents an important opportunity to share the beauty and rich history of the art form with residents of other nations.
However, the Beijing Opera tradition can present challenges to new audiences. For example, the language used in Chinese Opera is different from Mandarin or Cantonese. Wang compares it to how much of Western Opera is generally sung in Italian rather than English. She says that while the language used in Beijing Opera is closer to Mandarin, she estimates that 99 out of 100 Mandarin speakers would not understand what the performers are saying. To provide cross-cultural translation, the DCBBO members include Mandarin and English subtitles in their performances, a gargantuan task that involves translating both words and the overall essence of the original dialogue. However, this hard work allows the art form to be more accessible to audiences.
While Xie and Wang fear for the future of Beijing Opera, they have hope that it will continue. They find that many in Washington D.C. and Maryland have expressed interest in Beijing Opera. Other areas in the eastern United States also have a strong Beijing Opera presence. The DCBBO often receives help from performers and musicians from Philadelphia and the New York area for their performances. Many Beijing Opera performers and musicians also support each other by traveling to watch others’ performances. These reciprocal relationships help promote and sustain Beijing Opera in the United States. The interest continues with younger people, as well. The DCBBO works with a group of college students in New York City who are involved with Beijing Opera. Additionally, members of another group with whom the DCBBO is affiliated in New York have been able to reconnect to their Chinese heritage and culture through practicing and performing Beijing Opera. These examples highlight the importance of Beijing Opera to Chinese identity in diaspora.
Authored by Allie Stanich