Chinese opera venture has auspicious BU debut

Reviewed by David L. Schriber

What an exciting evening Friday,Nov. 6, as the Confucius Institute of Chinese Opera at Binghamton University (CICOBU) formally opened. We were among the 1,000 or so persons filling the Osterhout Concert Theater at BU’s Anderson Center to witness the inauguration and an hour-long sampler of classical Chinese opera. It was a delightful evening’s entertainment that carried the sense of a historic beginning for a new art form in Greater Binghamton.

CICOBU is a joint initiative of BU and the National Academy of Chinese Theater Arts.  Negotiations began in earnest after the two groups partnered in April 2008 to produce a version of “Romeo and Juliet” here in Binghamton in the style of Chinese opera. CICOBU is sponsored by the Confucius Institutes of the People’s Republic of China, whose mission is to promote Chinese language and culture. There are 300 Confucius Institutes around the world; of the 64 in the United States, Binghamton University will be the ONLY one to include xiqu or Chinese opera.

Following remarks by Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Mary Ann Swain; Zu-yan Chen, Director of the Confucius Institute at BU; Vice President Ba Tu of the National Academy of Chinese Theater Arts in Beijing, and Education Counselor Cen Jianjun from the Consulate General of the People’s Republic of China in New York, Professor Jin Zhiqiang demonstrated traditional musical instruments used in Chinese opera. Then students from the National Academy of Chinese Theater Arts in Beijing delighted and awed spectators by presenting scenes from six classical Chinese operas. The program combined elegant costuming, balletic dance, entrancing music, enchanting humor and impressive acrobatics.

Classical Chinese opera is not stuffy. It has lots of humor, as in the Autumn River crossing scene between a young woman and the old fisherman she hires to take her to the far shore. With just a paddle for a prop, the two actors evoked lots of laughs as the boat slowly turned in circles and bobbed up and down in the rapids.

Hysterically funny, almost slap-stick, but action-packed at the same time, was the Crossroads Inn scene in which a soldier and an innkeeper try to fight in the dark but can’t quite find each other. The timing and coordination of their moves had to be perfect, and the acrobatics were very exciting.

Students studying classical Chinese opera typically begin at age 10. All of Friday’s actors are college juniors at the National Academy of Chinese Theater Art in Beijing. Next fall the Beijing academy will send two language professors, two opera professors and an instrumental musician to BU.

Consular representative Cen Jianjun said this collaboration with Binghamton University builds a golden bridge to promote educational exchanges and greater cultural understanding and sows seeds of friendship upon fertile lands of our two nations. What a wonderful additional to our arts community and what a coup for Binghamton University

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