Students sang along in English and Chinese Monday night as they learned about the impact of Western culture on the Chinese theater.
The lecture, “Musical Theatre in China”, was a family affair as two sisters, Yang Jia and Yang Mei — both professors at the Shanghai Theatre Academy — spoke in Fine Arts about the musical theater scene in their native country. Their father played Chinese guitar, called the pipa.
Yang Jia is a visiting scholar at Binghamton University and has already gained notoriety in China and Japan, starring in ‘The Lion King’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast.’
Yang Jia sang “I Could Have Danced All Night” from “My Fair Lady,” partially in Chinese and partially in English. She explained the difficulty of trying to adapt a plot about an English girl learning how to speak properly into something more relateable to Chinese culture.
“We used dialects from [different] Chinese towns to represent Eliza’s almost unintelligible speech,” said Yang Jia, noting the natives from those towns laughing in the back of the room.
According to Yang Mei, China has pushed to find the balance between incorporating Western style into their theater and maintaining Chinese culture. She said China began producing plays that mirrored Broadway and Hollywood in the 1930’s, but attitudes towards Western styles began to shift after the Cultural Revolution and rise of communism.
“After 1949, the performers doing Western styles either left or changed their style,” Mei said.
Mei explained that China had influence on America, too.
“There were China-themed Broadway shows such as ‘Lute Song’ in 1946 and ‘Flower Drum Song’ in 1958,” she said. “The East was romanticized, made to seem like an ideal.”
Clips of Chinese theatre performances from the 1980’s through the present, when Western influence made a comeback in China, punctuated the lecture throughout the night.
“There was a cut between 1949 and 1980 until China was allowed to reconnect with the West,” Yang Mei said.
During her visit to the United States, Yang Jia spent time in New York City, serving on the admissions board at Julliard and performing at New York University. Yang Jia will be returning to Shanghai in June.
“I will take the attitudes and methods I learned here and incorporate them with my students, which enriches more than just the Academy, but all of China’s theater’s scene as well,” Yang Jia said. “I am very thankful for my opportunity in the United States.”
Wendy Jansson, an assistant to the director at the Confucius Institute of Chinese Opera (CICO) at BU, served as translator. CICO along with the Theatre Department sponsored the talk.