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Henan Opera brings role of clown to perfection

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Among the multiple performers of traditional Chinese Operas, Jin Buhuan is the one who makes people laugh. He's devoted his entire career to entertaining his millions of fans. The Henan Opera performer has brought the centuries-old role of the clown to the pitch of perfection.

It's only late March; and Jin Buhuan is already girding up for his 50th performance of 2009. For nearly half his life, the 40-year-old has worked with fierce intensity.

Over the years, Jin Buhuan has entertained millions of devoted fans. He's a household name in China's most populous province, Henan.

Jin Buhuan said, "Henan Opera is a very popular art form. When tired and weary, a farmer will hum a melody. It will help refresh and inspire them. In Henan, each village is home to many opera fans. Henan opera is a must-have for any temple fair. Its popularity even reaches beyond the province to neighboring regions."

Jin Buhuan's specialty is the clown, the jester of China's traditional opera. Performing and singing take this role far beyond that of its counterpart in the western circus.

The clown often represents the Everyman, in whom each member of the audience may occasionally catch a glimpse of himself.

An audience member said, "I like Henan Opera, especially the classical plays. I've been a fan for over 30 years."

Henan Opera has long been an essential part of the popular imagination for the province's 100 million sons and daughters. It arose out of a much older theater tradition and took the present form some three centuries ago.

The stories deal mostly with the historical and legendary events that unfolded on the vast plains of central China. Over the centuries, different regions have produced their own distinctive school.

Jin Buhuan said, "Henan Opera is long known for its diversity. There are lots of distinctive schools of singing. Ms. Ma Jinfeng is a representative of East Melody. The delivery is so decisive. Mr. Liu Zhonghe also sings East Melody, but in a different way. His style is a blending of aria and recitative. The Chang school also has its own features. In portraying a woman warrior, they go like this... There's a masculine strength in the female role. I learned from Niu Decao. He's an exponent of Xiangfu Melody, which belongs to the central Henan. That's how it goes. It's very easy-going. All these styles and schools combine to form the diverse Henan Opera."

The stage of Henan Opera is traditionally peopled by folk heroes, likeable outlaws, and paragons of virtue. The clown has come to the fore quite late, only after centuries of minor roles and brief interludes. The first full-length opera led by a clown performer appeared only about a hundred years ago. Even today it's not easy for a clown performer to assert his place on stage.

Jin Buhuan said, "It is hard for a clown performer to retain longtime popularity, especially in Henan Opera. You have to refrain from being too crude. And too much refinement may kill the very nature of the opera. The reason is that Henan Opera arose in the countryside and has a special rustic generosity in it."

The clown magistrate has been one of the most enduring roles over the past fifty years or so. It was created by the late Niu Decao, from whom Jin Buhuan learned most of his stagecraft.

In portraying the classic character, Jin has displayed a spirit of innovation. In the late 1990s, he created a sequel to the original production and revolutionized the role of opera clowns.

Jin Buhuan said, "In the play, the clown has arias from the first act to the last. That's a breakthrough for clown performers. The audience is impressed by my distinction from my predecessors. Opera clowns used to shun arias, but now I give top priority to singing, secondary to which are declaiming, acting, and dancing."

The traditional operas of China are known for their strictly stylized routines. But the clown is the wildcard on stage. Like the jester kept by medieval European nobility, he has the privilege to improvise, wisecrack, and say what no one else dares to.

The clown also has more freedom in performing, with a unique set of tricks.

Jin Buhuan said, "Each character is unique. They come with different tricks, which are performed through the eye, hand, and cheek. That's how a clown looks and glances on stage. He must project and inspire. Look at how the cheek twitches. It takes practice. You have to use your head and suit the action to the plot. Use it only when necessary. That's how you twirl an open fan. That's how a clown poses."

Like most classical performing arts, Henan Opera has a loyal but shrinking audience. Most of its fans are over 50. Jin Buhuan has already set out to boost the opera's appeal to the younger generations, revising both the plot and the music.

Jin Buhuan said, "In my new productions, I've tried to make certain arias more melodious. We have to win over more young audiences. One of them goes like this."

Jin Buhuan won the art's highest recognition about a decade ago, when he received the Plum Award. But such national prominence isn't reflected in his schedule.

All year round, he leads his company from one village to the next in Henan and neighboring provinces. They perform mostly in outdoor theaters or on improvised stages.

Jin Buhuan said, "The mission of an artist is to serve the audience. The audience needs us. They often brave harsh weather to see a show. Once in Shanxi, the elderly audience wouldn't leave even when it was snowing heavily. Their coats became soaked and they still sat there watching. We performers had a shelter. It's our duty to entertain them. They're watching my show in wet clothes, so I must give them my best performance."

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