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Ancient opera looks to strike a chord with younger audiences

Zhu Lixin/Ma Chenguang
Updated: Jul 15,2015 8:33 AM     Xinhua

Primary school students showcase what they have learned at an Anhui Opera talent class at an educational event in Hefei, Anhui province, in 2014.[Photo by Zhang Duan/Xinhua]

Although it’s one of China’s oldest and most famous traditional art forms, a lack of exposure and opportunity, and an aging cast of performers mean Anhui Opera may soon face the final curtain, as Zhu Lixin and Ma Chenguang report from Hefei.

In 1790, Imperial China was ablaze with excitement about the 80th birthday of the Qianlong Emperor, and artists, entertainers, actors, dancers and performers from across the country were ordered to travel to Beijing and help celebrate the momentous event. Four opera troupes from East China’s Anhui province were among the performers the emperor had commissioned, and when the celebrations finally came to an end, they decided to remain in the capital.

The decision was to prove a seminal moment in the evolution of one of China’s most widely recognized cultural treasures: In the late 1820s, the troupes began giving joint performances with the best troupes in Hubei province and eventually developed the style that modern-day devotees recognize as Peking Opera.

This year marks the 225th anniversary of the troupes’ participation, and in memory of their achievements and contribution to Chinese life, Anhui’s cultural department arranged a monthlong celebration that culminated with the province’s best opera troupes performing in Beijing.

One of the troupes performed The Psycho, “Jinghunji” in Chinese, an adaptation of Macbeth, one of Shakespeare’s darkest and most powerful works. Set in Scotland, the play illustrates the damaging physical and psychological effects of political ambition on those who seek power for its own sake.

The adaptation, which premiered in 2013 after more than a year in preparation, is set in China during the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC), and although some minor changes were required to make the story better fit the Chinese background, the plot remains faithful to the original.

Producer Li Longbin said the adaptation was partly aimed at the younger generation and foreigners, because while Peking Opera is revered as China’s “national essence”, Anhui Opera is on the verge of dying out.

Wang Danhong during an Anhui Opera performance in 2011.[Photo by Zhang Jing/China Daily]

Change and decline

Before the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Anhui Opera was known as “Hui-diao”, which translates loosely as “Anhui tune”, but that was changed to “Huiju”, meaning “Anhui Opera”. In 1956, the Anhui Provincial Opera Troupe of Anhui Opera was established, and it trained dozens of famous artists, some of whom performed for former top leaders, such as Chairman Mao Zedong, and won great acclaim.

Zhang Qixiang, 71, one of the best-known “first-generation” of Anhui Opera performers, has expressed his concerns about the state of the form on many occasions. Nine years ago, he told a local newspaper, “The provincial troupe has been serving as a brand, but we don’t have enough products to make the brand memorable to the audience”.

It seems that Zhang was right to be worried:

The Psycho is one of just a handful of new works that have been created specifically for the genre since he gave that interview in 2006.

The dearth of new works has led to fewer performances and, inevitably, lower standards. “As a result, actors and actresses don’t have enough chances to practice on stage”, said Wang Danhong, an Anhui performer, who has garnered praise both in China and internationally for more than 30 years. She has won China’s most-prestigious drama award, the Chinese Plum Award, and is seen as an “inheritor” of Anhui Opera, which was listed as part of the nation’s intangible cultural heritage in 2006.

“I think I was born to perform Anhui Opera-which has brought me so many honors in the past 30 years-so I have to do something to save the form from dying out,” she said.

In 1982, Wang, then just 14, was one of 45 students admitted to the Anhui School of Art to study the provincial opera form. They were regarded as the second generation of Anhui Opera artists, following Zhang and his peers, but now fewer than 10 of them are still engaged in the art form.

Three years later, the provincial troupe recruited Wang, who was a student at the time, to play a number of roles in their programs. It was the start of her professional career.

In 1990, to mark the 200th anniversary of the original troupes’ journey to Beijing, the central cultural authorities arranged for troupes from all the major Chinese operatic forms to perform in the capital. Wang was chosen to perform The Drunken Concubine, also a Peking Opera favorite, which was regarded as a great honor.

“In the mid-1990s, new cultures started to influence China with unprecedented speed,” Wang said, referring to a period when she first began to sense that the general public was falling out of love with traditional Chinese opera. Her career stalled, mainly because there were so few opportunities to perform, and most chances came via gala events, which were few and far between. “To help Anhui Opera, new measures have to be taken to attract larger audiences, especially younger people. Young people don’t hate the opera, they just don’t get enough chances to appreciate it,” she said.

However, other provinces have now taken the lead in protecting traditional opera forms. Despite its long history and the fame of its star performers, Anhui Opera has been relegated to the “graveyard shift” on local TV, which broadcasts a program at 8 am, when most people are either on their way to work or busy preparing for the day ahead.

The lack of media presence is compounded by a decline in the number of people who understand and appreciate the form, “not to mention those who love it”, Zhang said.

Anhui Opera artists perform for overseas Chinese in New York during a tour of the US in 2013.[Photo by Wang Chengyun/Xinhua]

The new generation

In 1997, Wang was accepted by the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing. She studied there for two years until she was recruited by a Swiss opera troupe, where she performed a wide range of roles in both Western and Anhui opera. Eventually though, she decided to return to Anhui.

In 2005, the Anhui Opera Troupe and the Peking Opera Troupe were reorganized into a new single entity called the Anhui Provincial Troupe of Anhui Opera and Peking Opera. The following year, the Anhui troupe recruited dozens of students for a five-year training program. They are the third generation of artists from the province.

“They spend half their time studying Peking Opera, and the other half doing Anhui Opera. I have to doubt the effect of such a training model,” Wang said. “Although they share many similarities, Anhui Opera and Peking Opera are still two different genres, so I think the training courses will not be able to breed real talent.

“Nowadays, all the best Anhui Opera artists-and there aren’t too many of them-are older than 40,” Wang said, adding that talented young performers seem to be in short supply.

She was deeply concerned about the future. “Once my generation has retired from the stage, Anhui Opera may eventually die out. The first generation would be too old to teach courses, and the good times for us-the ‘second generation’-may end soon. A lack of opportunity to practice may mean that the third generation, all of whom are still very young, may not progress,” she said.

As a member of the Provincial Committee of the Political Consultative Conference, Wang has repeatedly called for greater protection for Anhui Opera. She has also submitted a number of proposals and suggested the establishment of a professional teaching team to raise the level of training.

“We should try hard to protect classic and traditional Anhui Opera programs and make full use of them, but whether the art form can survive the current difficulties depends on the measures taken,” she said.

Ji Guoping, vice-chairman of the Chinese Dramatists Association, said adapting Western plays is an innovative way of reviving traditional operas, and called for a greater range of measures to be employed to ensure the survival of the Anhui form. “Adaptations are a perfect combination of tradition and innovation. They give us an effective way of reviving and promoting Chinese opera to a much wider audience,” he said.

Going for a song

With a history of more than 300 years, Anhui Opera is widely acknowledged as a formative influence on Peking Opera, one of China’s best-known cultural treasures.

The seed of Peking Opera was planted in 1790, when the “Four Great Anhui Troupes” arrived in Beijing for the celebrations of the 80th birthday of the Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799). Qianlong, who ruled from 1735 to 1796, is considered to be one of the greatest emperors of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). He visited southern China a number of times, and, according to legend, during a trip to Anhui province he decided to dress as an ordinary citizen and ordered his retainers to do the same.

One day, when Qianlong and his retinue were seeking shelter from an unexpected rain shower, they saw people watching an opera in the ancestral hall of a local family. The emperor is said to have been deeply impressed with the performance.

As his 80th birthday approached, Qianlong ordered his officials to bring Anhui Opera to the court. In response, the Sanqing Troupe, headed by star performer Gao Langting, traveled to the capital and performed for the emperor, who praised the show.

It was the first time Anhui Opera had been performed in Beijing. The operas were originally staged exclusively for the court, and the general public wasn’t granted a glimpse until much later.

A short time later, three more leading Anhui troupes-the Sixi, the Chuntai and the Hecun-arrived in Beijing. At the end of the birthday celebrations, the four troupes decided to remain in the capital.

In 1828, several famous troupes from Hubei province arrived in Beijing and began performing jointly with the Anhui troupes. The combination of styles gradually evolved into the distinctive sound of Peking Opera, and eventually became known as “Jingdiao”, a style in its own right. The name, which means “capital melody”, marked the moment Peking Opera came into existence.

The new form developed quickly under its imperial patrons, but initially only male performers were allowed to participate, and female singers weren’t allowed onto the stage until the 1870s.