How does one train a Peruvian carp for deep Chinese waters?

How does one train a Peruvian carp for deep Chinese waters?

From this intriguing title, you might think my Churchill Fellowship was based on research in marine biology or developing species crossovers.

José Navarro as Carp, National Opera Studio. Photo: Coco Lan Shi. Download ''
José Navarro as Carp, National Opera Studio. Photo: Coco Lan Shi. Download ''

In fact, my Churchill Fellowship of 2004 informed part of my work in Chinese opera. Now, 20 years on, I am delighted to say I continue to put my learning to good use.

I am a seasoned amateur Jingju (Peking Opera) and Kunqu opera performer, teacher and promoter. I kept up with the art form for many years in Hong Kong, alongside my career in school teaching and later in arts administration. Since settling in the UK in 1997, I have continued to immerse myself.

In 2022, I had a chance meeting with a friend, José Navarro, a British-Peruvian master puppeteer, trained in Western classical and contemporary mime. José bought one of the elaborately embroidered costumes I have from China, the 'Carp Armour'. When he tried the costume on, I saw in his agility that he could perhaps morph into a carp!

This sparked a lightbulb moment and, encouraged by the chance of funding from the Wandsworth Arts Fringe (WAF) 2023 ‘Call for Artists’, I hit on the idea of adapting the popular Chinese legend of the auspicious carp into Chinese opera movements and music, which hitherto had not been done.

So began José and my shared cross-cultural partnership into uncharted territories. It took about a year for it to mature into our performance for the WAF Festival in June 2023.

José works internationally in puppetry but is completely new to Jingju. We both welcomed the rare chance of a new departure in a different direction. For me, it is a new undertaking to put aside the familiar movements of the Dan, female role, and to choreograph for what I see as the combined male roles of the ‘military young man’ Wu Xiaosheng and the Painted-Face role of the Jing/Hualian.

We titled the project ‘Carp Leaps over the Dragon Gate’ after the legend of the carp striving to swim upstream to jump over the Dragon Gate and become a dragon himself, free to roam the heavens and the seas. It promotes the Chinese ethos of hard work leading to self-improvement.

"And I continue to find new opportunities, thanks to my Fellowship."

I designed the image of the carp (actor-dancer), sourcing some of the components from China. To add panache and fluidity of movements to the character, I chose as a hand-prop a 1.5m ‘Cloud Duster’ of genuine horse-tail hair, used by Animal Spirits and other non-earthly beings in Chinese opera. I designed the head of the carp, with its characteristic barbels in gold and black, emblazoned on the forehead, as is the practice for the Painted-Face of an animal spirit.

For the preparatory work, we were supported by the Arts Council of England National Lottery Project Grant, securing two Chinese New Year performances in January 2023 in the town square of Maidstone, Kent, and one performance in the Lancaster University Great Hall.

With this firm grounding, we took our project to the next stage as part of the WAF Festival 2023. Sadly, we had poor ticket sales for the WAF performance and workshop at the National Opera Studio in Wandsworth. However, audience questionnaires showed that our work was welcomed as an eye-opening new venture and enjoyed by audiences of all ages.

And I continue to find new opportunities, thanks to my Fellowship.

In April, I was invited to introduce Kunqu Opera to students of the Institute of Ethnomusicology in the University of the Arts, Graz, Austria. The two-day intensive workshops, lecture and performance received the joint support of three different Departments in the university and also the Graz Confucius Institute. This was a first for Austria, so my Fellowship is still enabling me to break new ground.

You can contact Kathy at the London Chinese Opera Studio.


The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.


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