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Peking Opera legend as White Snake

In Beijing, people queued through the night to witness Peking-Opera legend Zhang Huoding play a shape-shifter, wife, and grieving mother in “The Legend of White Snake”. And their patience was rewarded with a tour-de-force performance. Zhang’s appearance at the packed Chang An Grand Theater closed out the 16th “Meet-in-Beijing Arts Festival”.

“White Snake” is one of China’s Four Great Folktales, emerging from an oral tradition that precedes writing. And tonight, the title role belongs to one of China’s biggest Peking-Opera stars, Zhang Huoding.

Two snake spirits — Bai Shuzhen and her maidservant Xiao Qing — live atop Mount Emei beyond the reach of mortality.

But one day, when they descend in human guise and it starts to rain, a mortal man named Xu Xian lends Bai Shuzhen his umbrella, and that’s when they start to fall in love.

But they’re not the only ones in love. So are the audience — with the lead actress.

Zhang Huoding is a megastar in Beijing, and she is so well-loved by her fans that they follow her to each performance, and tonight is no exception. Tickets for tonight’s closing performance sold out within 30 minutes of going on sale, and people waited outside of this theater until 2 am the night before.

Zhang Huoding has loved Peking Opera since the age of nine, but only got accepted into the Tianjin Opera School at the age of 15, considered quite late. Today, the 45-year-old is revered for her wide range of talents — not just her mellifluous singing voice and regal presence on stage, but also her skill in swordplay and martial arts.

The producer of the Meet-in-Beijing Arts Festival explains why he chose this opera for the closing performance.

“The Meet in Beijing Arts Festival has reached new heights since its inception. Last year, Zhang Huoding also performed at the closing ceremony of the 15th Festival. A few months later in September, she made her US debut at the Lincoln Centre in New York where she was very well received and got a ton of press coverage in both local and national media, including the ‘The New York Times’, for her amazing performances,” said Zhang Yu, producer of Meet-in-Beijing Arts Festival.

Of course, every hero must have an antagonist, and Bai Shuzhen’s comes in the form of an evil monk named Fa Hai. He wants to break up the marriage by getting Xu Xian to see his wife in her true form — a giant white-snake spirit.

During the Dragon Boat Festival, the monk tells him to give his wife a special concoction that will reveal her true form. After much convincing, she drinks it. Her husband sees that she really is a snake and dies from shock.

But Bai Shuzhen goes up to Heaven to steal an immortal herb that saves his life.

Zhang Huoding explains why she is attracted to the role of Bai Shuzhen.

“This is a woman who is crazy about love, and it’s a tragic love story, which has so much meaning, and that’s why I like to play her, because I also love the story behind this opera very much,” Zhang said.

Even after Bai Shuzhen has revived her husband, however, the monk is not done. He imprisons Xu Xian, and that’s when the epic battle scenes at the Temple begin.

It’s also where Zhang displays her graceful martial-arts skills, playing a pregnant Bai Shuzhen who is too weak to ward off the forces and save her husband. But he manages to escape and they meet on a bridge where he apologizes to her and they start living a happy life again.

But even then, the monk will not give up. After the birth of their son, he returns again and traps her in a magical alms bowl which he buries beneath the Leifeng Pagoda.

Despite her stage charisma, Zhang is famously press-shy, preferring to live a quiet life with her husband and young daughter. Twenty years into her stage career, has becoming a mother changed her performance style?

“Yes, I think absolutely. There is a scene when Bai Shuzhen is about to be captured by the monk and she is saying her goodbyes to her newborn baby. And just holding that baby as a prop, I can imagine it as my own child, it’s very real and deep, and I think that emotion translates to the audience,” Zhang Huoding said.

When her face isn’t painted, Zhang Huoding is a professor of the National Academy of Chinese Theater Arts. She only gives a handful of performances each year, which explains why audience members got to their feet for the curtain call and chanted Zhang Huoding’s name repeatedly. Luckily, they got an encore!