By Walter Ang
Jan. 11, 2014
Philippine Daily Inquirer
"'Beijing or Peking Opera' is how the rest of the world knows it," she explains. "However, this is just a foreign scholar's translation of a Chinese term that cannot really be translated perfectly."
She adds: "It is called jingju (京劇); 'jing' (京) comes from the name of the city, Beijing, where this genre was born; and 'ju' (劇) which means 'play or drama.' The Western definition of drama could not quite include the musical aspect of this genre; hence it was considered a kind of opera, even if opera is hardly the same as jingju."
Hailing from Laoag, Ilocos Norte, Luis grew up "in the part of the woods where arts was a luxury and definitely could not be considered a profession."
At age 10 she had an epiphany when she saw a video of the musical "Annie." She remembers thinking at the time: "You can actually sing and dance and act at the same time? This is theater? Oh, goodie!"
But she had to satisfy her newfound interest with soundtrack cassette tapes and videotapes of live performances since there weren't many shows in her hometown.
Luis flexed her theater muscles in high school. "I was more of a director than an actress because I liked ordering people around," she says, laughing.
"Classical singing came in after I shared an apartment with music and voice majors while studying theater at the University of the Philippines," she recalls.
This was when her fascination with jingju began.
"The whole storytelling, with its presentation of music, song, speech, dance and acting, was stylized yet incredibly engaging. It presented a synthesis of art forms rolled into one unique theater experience," she adds. (She found out during her studies that Bertolt Brecht was actually a fan of jingju.)
After college, she performed with several groups, including the Bayanihan Dance Company. She eventually found her way to Beijing with a grant from the China Scholarship Council.
Luis had to learn the Chinese language for a whole year before she could even begin the performance program.
"I had to put in extra effort to translate lyrics just to understand and properly express what I was singing," she says.
Cultural adjustments were also a constant challenge. "Chopsticks posed a threat to my well-being so I always carried a fork in my bag, just in case," she quips.
To add another hurdle, her background as a singer didn't prepare her for the singing involved in jingju. "The style is different: nasal, shrill, with a different technique for resonance."
She says, "I spent at least one school year just learning the singing, acting, movement and dance for a 12-minute piece. That is how much work jingju requires of a foreigner without previous exposure to the form."
Now that she's back in Manila, Luis works at the International Affairs Office of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts while still dancing with Bayanihan.
"There are some things that I learned in jingju that I am able to use discreetly in my work for Bayanihan," she says. "I hope to teach jingju in the future, and realize a joint production of a Filipino sarswela and jingju with both Filipino and Chinese artists."
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