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Shy star returns

Chen Nan
Updated: May 16,2016 10:04 AM     China Daily

Zhang Huoding is known for her performances in The Legend of The Jewelry Pouch.[Photo provided to China Daily]

As Zhang Huoding walks to the stage, cameras follow her and the crowds get excited. The 45-year-old is one of a few Peking Opera performers who can get the attention usually reserved for a pop star.

Her shows are sold out and fans, especially young people, love her performances of the traditional art form, which is facing a decline today.

On May 24, Zhang will present a Peking Opera classic, The Legend of the White Snake, at Chang’an Grand Theater in Beijing, to mark the end of the monthlong Meet in Beijing arts festival for the year, one of the capital’s biggest cultural events.

Zhang Huoding is known for her performances in The Legend of the White Snake .[Photo provided to China Daily]

The Legend of the White Snake is about a love affair between a female snake named Bai Suzhen, who turns into a beautiful woman, and a man called Xu Xian. They meet, fall in love and get married. But a monk, who considers Bai evil and jails her in a tower, gets in the way of the couple’s happy life.

“I like the role of Bai Suzhen very much. The woman is strong, crazy for love and brave,” says Zhang, who was born in Baicheng city in Northeast China’s Jilin province.

She began her studies in Peking Opera in Tianjin in 1986. Upon graduation three years later, she focused on the Cheng school-one of the four major Peking Opera styles that emerged in the early 20th century-under accomplished performer Zhao Rongchen (1916-96).

The Cheng school, founded by famed Peking Opera master Cheng Yanqiu (1904-58), is known for its sorrowful and graceful singing, especially when portraying vulnerable and constrained female roles.

Zhang Huoding.[Photo provided to China Daily]

In 2000, Zhang performed the role of Bai for the first time when she was working with the China National Peking Opera Company.

To play the role, she adapted the classic piece to the Cheng style. This performance brought her great acclaim and made her a representative figure of the school.

Then, in 2007, she was the first Peking Opera performer to hold a solo concert at the Great Hall of the People.

A highlight of her upcoming show is that Zhang will perform with four actors from different generations of Peking Opera performers, who play the role of Xu Xian. The actors include Ye Shaolan, Song Xiaochuan, Zhao Rao and Zhang Bing.

According to Ye, The Legend of the White Snake marks a significant milestone in the development of Peking Opera.

In 1951, shortly after the founding of New China, famed playwright Tian Han (1898-1968), who used to write librettos for traditional Chinese operas, adapted the classic piece into a contemporary Peking Opera work.

Since then, The Legend of the White Snake has brought joy to generations of Peking Opera fans.

Ye also says his father, Peking Opera veteran Ye Shenglan (1914-78), performed the role of Xu in The Legend of the White Snake in Paris in 1955.

In the audience then were prominent French actor Gerard Philipe and film icon Charlie Chaplin.

Speaking of his upcoming role, Ye Shaolan says: “I rarely perform these days because I am over 70. But I am excited to perform with Zhang Huoding because she works hard and contributes to the development of Peking Opera.

“My father’s generation took Peking Opera to the West. Now, we have Zhang Huoding, who is doing the same thing, giving Western audiences a glimpse of our treasured art,” he says, referring to Zhang’s successful debut performances in the United States in September.

Zhang caused a sensation then by performing The Legend of the White Snake and another famous Peking Opera piece, The Jewelry Pouch, at the Lincoln Center in New York.

Her US debut was even compared by the media to a performance by Mei Lanfang (1894-1961), who appeared in New York in 1930.

Zhang Yu, president of the China Arts and Entertainment Group, says: “Her performance in the US was a milestone for Chinese culture going global.”

The group also organized the Meet in Beijing arts festival, besides Zhang’s performance in the US.

Faced with this praise, Zhang Huoding, a woman of few words, replies with a shy smile, saying: “I guess the reason why my shows are popular is that I rarely perform in public now. So fans are curious.”

Zhang’s main job now involves teaching at the National Academy of Chinese Theater Arts.

She was transferred there in 2008 from the China National Peking Opera Company because she wanted to withdraw from stage and focus on teaching.

She didn’t return to the stage until 2014.

Zhang, who is married and has a child, keeps a low profile and lives a quiet life.

She does not even use a computer or a cellphone, she says.

Given her influence and popularity, the National Academy of Chinese Theater Arts launched an art heritage center named after her in November.

The center is dedicated to teaching, performing and researching the Cheng school.

As for her future plans, Zhang says: “I want to maintain a balance between teaching and performing as we have many talented young actors. I hope to inspire the next generation with my knowledge and experience.”

If you go

7:30 pm, May 24. Chang’an Grand Theater, 7 Jianguomennei Street, Dongcheng district, Beijing. 400-690-3721.

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