Beijing opera, Goodall musical numbers on stage Sunday at Grizzly Peak Winery
A British man, born to Azerbaijani Iranian Azeri parents, is now the unlikely champion of the art of Beijing opera. You can see him perform Sunday, May 30, at Grizzly Peak Winery.
“My Beijing Opera Dream and Celebrating Jane Goodall’s Bestiary” will be presented from 3 to 5 p.m. by Ghaffar Pourazar in the winery’s outdoor Oak Grove venue.
Pourazar will perform the ancient craft and culture of Chinese opera through his signature role as the mythical Monkey King in a new musical format based on Dr. Goodall’s compassionate work with animals.
“This is a new form of presentation for me as a one-man show,” Pourazar said. “I use Beijing opera as a background to tell the story of the musical based on Goodall’s work.”
In 1993, Pourazar saw a Beijing opera performance in London and was moved so much he quit his job and enrolled in a Beijing opera school, drawn by both the beauty and the difficulty of mastering the art form.
In Beijing opera, performers not only act, they sing and dance while performing heart-stopping feats of acrobatics and sword fighting.
He spent five years undergoing punishing training. Now, he presents a hybrid, bilingual opera production based on the much-loved legend of the Monkey King, a mischievous monkey born from a stone, who learns supernatural skills and uses them to challenge the Emperor of Heaven.
Pourazar learned that no matter how well a foreigner performs, he will never look the part unless he is playing a Xinjiang character.
“That is why I specialize in the Monkey King,” he said. “With a painted face, the issue does not come up.”
He said audiences are the same all over the world.
“The clapping and shouts of ‘HAO!’ from audiences in China feels no different from the applause on Broadway or in theaters anywhere else,” he said. “There’s a lot of joy in that as a performer.”
Pourazar met Goodall about 20 years ago, introduced to her by the head of the Jane Goodall Institute in Beijing at the time.
“We hit it off right away,” he said. “I performed a little monkey routine for her and she was overjoyed.” Goodall is most famous for her 60-year study of social and family interactions of wild chimpanzees.
Over the years, he performed for her lectures and meetings in China and teamed up with her institute and UNICEF to release environmental Beijing opera pieces. It was during this time that he thought of creating a musical based on her life.
It has not been an easy journey, and the musical itself has yet to be staged. Financial, technical and legal issues all have been problematical. But a mutual friend of his and Goodall’s encouraged Pourazar to continue his work. “He said, ‘Do it for yourself,’” Pourazar remembers.
It occurred to him that in some ways her story was his story.
“The story of going to a strange land, not knowing the locals, their language, and food and habits was both hers and mine,” he said.
Trying to squeeze oneself into another world by learning and struggling, but surviving somehow, was something they had in common.
“This was when I started working on my own story in parallel with Jane’s.”
After seeing Beijing opera for the first time in England those many years ago, he followed the company to every subsequent performance — in Norwich, Cambridge, Manchester and back to London. It was in Cambridge that the director of the troupe agreed to meet him.
“I was brought up and educated in Cambridge and knew it like the back of my hands,” he said.
He visited the actors at Trinity College where they were housed. Some of them recognized his friendly face. He showed them around town, into the shops, and took them punting on the Cam River.
“I did my crazy kung fu for them and they laughed. They took me to see their director and told her how much I loved Beijing opera. She spoke to me through a translator,” he said.
A month later he received a letter from the Beijing Opera School, inviting him to study with them.
Before devoting his life to Beijing opera, Pourazar was a teacher of computer science and physical theater at the Brit School for Performing Arts & Technology in London, and working on his Ph.D. at Bournemouth University’s National Center for Computer Animation.
He was hesitant to tell his family about his decision to quit his job and study Beijing opera, fearing they wouldn’t understand or approve.
“When I first went to Beijing, my family questioned me regularly,” he said. “I told them I was following my Ph.D. research with the Beijing opera movement and animation. It was not far from the truth.”
It was in 1997 when his relatives saw a CNN report on his Beijing opera adaptation of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that they put two and two together.
There was resistance from traditionalists in China when he first did “Midsummer.”
“But now they are making Beijing opera versions of Brecht, Chekov, and even Hollywood classics,” he said.
For the past three years, Pourazar has been teaching musical theater at China’s prestigious cultural institution, the Shanghai Theater Academy, directing plays like “Chicago” and teaching “Aida,” “Evita,” “Guys and Dolls,” “Sweeney Todd,” and other musicals.
He is currently looking for a teaching job in a theater and dance or Asian studies department at an American university, with plans to eventually return to China.
In his performance of Beijing opera pieces at Grizzly Peak, he’ll also include a few excerpts from his musical about Goodall. “These are culturally mixed East-West numbers,” Pourazar said.
He hopes audiences, after seeing his performance, will take home an appreciation of something strange and alien to their usual experiences.
“They’ll see something ancient, poetic, dynamic, moving, exciting, beautiful, and cultural,” he said. “Something I hope brings people closer to each other.”
Tickets cost $20 for adults and $10 for students and can be ordered via email to GPWreservations@gmail.com. For information about other shows at the winery, go to grizzlypeakwinery.com.
Reach Ashland writer Jim Flint at firstname.lastname@example.org.