Little Cowherd all the way from Oakland

Updated: 2011-10-26 07:56

By Jules Quartly (China Daily)

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Tyler Thompson is the face of change for Peking Opera.

The African-American who has just turned 16 and lives in Oakland, California, has been interested in the art form since he was at kindergarten and performed the role of the cowherd in Xiao Fang Niu (Little Cowherd) when he was just 8.

He demonstrated his Peking Opera skills to former Chinese vice-premier Wu Yi at the US State Department, and has appeared on the TV show Good Morning America and various symphony halls in the US.

His interest in Peking Opera and the international attention he has received shows how the ancient art form has gone global.

For one thing, "he doesn't do lipstick" says Thompson's teacher, Sherlyn Chew of the Purple Silk Music Education Foundation at Laney College, explaining "he thinks makeup is for girls".

He presents Justice Bao with just a daub of white paint on his forehead, but even so still manages to steal the stage.

"Audiences are so awed by his performance, they overlook the (lack of) make-up," Chew says in an e-mail interview.

As for Thompson, Peking Opera is "theater at its most extravagant".

Little Cowherd all the way from Oakland

"I love watching the male performers dressed in the most eye-catching attire, and singing at vocal ranges that most women can't even reach. I love seeing the beautiful gowns and dresses the women wear.

"I thoroughly enjoy watching the amazing stunts that are performed. I feel that this is an art form that is well known but not given the proper acknowledgement in American culture."

Thompson does not speak Chinese but sings pitch perfect in the language and says it's easy to sense the emotional power of the story.

"I do not think that Peking Opera should be sung in English," he says. "Americanizing Peking Opera songs would not give Peking Opera that same appeal."

His standout performances partly result from his being raised in Oakland's Chinatown and going to a school that has mainly Asian pupils.

His mother, Vanessa Ladson, says she sent Tyler to the nearest school and her son was picked out by Chew when she was talent spotting new singers for the choir.

"She heard Tyler's voice and the rest is, as they say, history," Ladson says. "One day he was performing at a school function, the next he was on the front page of The Wall Street Journal."

"I was as involved with the culture as the art form," Tyler says, adding that he does get some ribbing from his mates about dressing up and singing Peking Opera, "but they're still very supportive of me as well as fascinated".

The next step, he says, is Beijing.