Gotcha at the Opera

March 11, 2019
By Chen NanEditor: Wei Xuanyi

Yan Xijiao, a 70-minute production by scriptwriter and director Li Zhuoqun. [Photo provided to China Daily]

 

A Beijing theater company is proving that attracting the young to an old form — those more prone to watch reality TV or read comics — is not a lost cause.

Traditionalists often lament that ancient Chinese art forms are under threat in the face of contemporary entertainment, but there has been a surge in popularity of the ancient art among young Chinese audiences in small theaters.

Peking Opera, or jingju, has a history of more than 200 years, and in 2010 UNESCO declared it an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

It brings together art forms including singing, dancing, martial arts and acrobatics, and its resurgence in small theaters is notable in that Peking Opera is usually performed in large theaters and includes grand scenes such as battlefields and royal courts. It is mostly enjoyed by elder audiences.

Star Theater is one of the small theaters in Beijing in which many of the smaller Peking Opera shows are being staged.

With three theaters, each with a capacity of about 200 seats, Star Theater will stage five Peking Opera productions from March 22 to 31.

The five works, presented by the Jingju Theatre Company of Beijing, will be staged as part of the 40th anniversary of the company, which was jointly founded by Peking Opera masters including Mei Lanfang (1894-1961) and Ma Lianliang (1901-66).

One of the shows, Yan Xijiao, is a 70-minute production that premiered in 2013 and was the directorial debut work of the Peking Opera scriptwriter and director Li Zhuoqun.

The story is an adaptation of the 14th-century Chinese classic novel Water Margin by Shi Nai'an and is about the leading female character, Yan Xijiao, the concubine of district official Song Jiang, and Yan's secret lover, Song's apprentice Zhang Wenyuan.

The show has been staged more than 60 times in small theaters around the country and has stood out from other Peking Opera shows in becoming popular among younger audiences.

"Members of the creative team are about the same age as the audience, mostly people born after 1980 and 1990," says Li, asked why the audiences can connect with the stories her works present.

"We've all grown up watching the same cartoons, TV shows and listening to the same music, so we all have the same reference points. We keep the shows' plotlines simple because it's easier for the audience to understand. There are also fewer roles in the shows than in big-budget shows."

Li's second Peking Opera work, A Love Beyond, will also be staged at Star Theater. It had its premiere in 2014 and is adapted from the novel Grinding the Jade Bodhisattva, a love story written by an anonymous author from the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

Li, 32, born in Linfen, Shanxi province, was introduced to traditional Chinese opera by her family, who all worked for a local folk opera troupe.

She started learning Peking Opera and local folk operas as a child. Her grandfather taught her to write Chinese by using lyrics from Peking Opera pieces. One of her hobbies as a child was to watch rehearsals in the theater.

Li received a bachelor's degree in dramatic literature from the National Academy of Chinese Theater Arts and then a master's degree in theater directing. After graduating she joined the Jingju Theatre Company of Beijing in 2011 as a scriptwriter and director.

Like many young Chinese, Li is a fan of American and South Korean TV dramas. The scenes from TV dramas such as falling in love at first sight and reunion inspired Li to adapt classic love stories into her own interpretation or to create her own romance.

However, apart from the acclaim she has received from younger people, she has also run into flak from older people, some of whom question her loyalty to the old art form.

"When you look at Peking Opera over the past 200 years you can see it's not something that is locked in the past like an exhibit sitting in a museum," Li says. "It keeps changing thanks to the older generation of Peking Opera masters dedicated to keeping it alive and relevant. Different Peking Opera shows are enjoyed by people of different ages. Contemporary young audiences, especially those new to Peking Opera, may be attracted to shows in small theaters."

The Peking Opera actress Suo Mingfang has played leading female roles in Li's productions for small theaters, including in Li's latest production, Hero Wu Song, which premiered in Beijing in August. She will play the leading role of A Love Beyond staged at Star Theater on March 24 and 25.

"I can still recall the first time when I played at small theater," says Suo, 35, who joined the Jingju Theatre Company of Beijing in 2006 after graduating from the National Academy of Chinese Theater Arts.

"The audiences sat so close to the stage that I could even hear the sound of their breath. Just as with traditional shows in big theaters, Peking Opera shows in small theaters are rooted deeply in the old art form, such as how the actors move and sing on stage, but we try to make the shows more contemporary, such as the way in which the stories are told."

Han Yuechao, a Star Theater producer, says: "I don't think Peking Opera is old-fashioned at all. Putting on Peking Opera in small theaters not only means less space than in big theaters but also allows young directors, scriptwriters and actors to experiment with the old art form. Young people are open to various art forms. They are drawn to fresh ideas relating to this traditional art form and are connected to the stories, which resonate with our daily lives."

Star Theater, founded 10 years ago this year, was the first of its kind in Beijing and has become a magnet for drama aficionados, which is the first of its kind in the capital. It staged more than 600 shows last year, pulling in a more than 100,000 people.

In 2014 Star Theater launched Xiqu Opera Black Box Festival, which gathers about 20 traditional Chinese opera shows by troupes from around the country every year.

Han, the project coordinator of the festival, says social media platforms are an important channel in communicating with young people. Audiences are invited to learn about the story lines of each show. For children, Star Theater also offers programs such as painting Peking Opera masks and wearing costumes. Ticket prices are kept afford-able at 100 yuan ($14.9), which has also helped bring in the crowds.

Ma Qian Po Shui, a Peking Opera show directed by the theater veterans Zhang Manjun, is regarded as the first Peking Opera show made for small theaters. The opera, premiered in 2000 and performed by actors of the Jingju Theatre Company of Beijing, including Yang Shaopeng and Zheng Xiao, tells the story of a troubled couple during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), the wife, disgruntled with her life, leaving her husband. After he gains an official position and success she wants to return to him but he spurns her.

"What really impressed audiences were the fresh approaches to story telling, such as flashback and interposed narration," says Bai Ailian, the director of the latest version of Ma Qian Po Shui.

"But they were also drawn in by themes touched on in the show, such as the causes of friction in a marriage and how money can subvert a marriage."

Star Theater will stage the show on March 26 and 27, featuring the same actors from the original version of the show.

"Though it's a Peking Opera show, audiences love it because they feel connected," Bai says, adding that the music also differs to that of traditional Peking Opera. In one scene the husband recalls the good days when the couple had just married. The guzheng is the only musical instrument played onstage, rather than the traditional gong and drum.

"The audience follows the husband's memories but suddenly, the music stops, which pulls both the husband and the audience back to reality," Bai says. "Only in small theaters can that kind of intimacy between actors and audiences be created."

Bai, who graduated from Central Academy of Drama with a PhD in directing in 2003, directed her first Peking Opera show, Six Records of a Floating Life, for small theaters in 2008.

Based on the memoir by the Chinese writer Shen Fu from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the Peking Opera production, Six Records of a Floating Life, follows Shen's memories about his dead wife.

"Traditional Peking Opera shows portray romance against the backdrop of wars or linked with the survival of a nation," Bai says. "Six Records of a Floating Life depicts love between husband and wife, which is not commonly seen."

Yan Xijiao, a 70-minute production by scriptwriter and director Li Zhuoqun. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Six Records of a Floating Life, director Bai Ailian's first Peking Opera show. [Photo provided to China Daily]

A Love Beyond, director Li Zhuoqun's second Peking Opera work, adopted from the novel Grinding the Jade Bodhisattva. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Bai Ailian. [Photo provided to China Daily]

 

(Source: China Daily)

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