Can old opera genre forge new generation of music aficionados?
Youth is in full blossom in Yueju Opera as the traditional opera genre attracts a new generation of talent to the stage.
Some 30 young performers, who were mostly born in the mid-1990s and graduated from the Shanghai Theater Academy’s College of Chinese Opera, have been bringing new vitality to the genre in a series of performances since March.
The series, entitled “Bloom of Youth,” has included excerpts from classics such as “The Jade Hairpin,” “The Romance of West Chamber,” “The Pearl Pagoda” and “Butterfly Lovers.”
Yueju Opera originated in the city of Shengzhou, Zhejiang Province, around 1906. Compared with Peking Opera, it is softer and less boisterous and masculine, with sweetness of lyrics and a gentle style.
The Shanghai Yueju Opera Troupe, which enjoys international acclaim, was founded in 1955.
The “Bloom of Youth” series is a collaboration between the Shanghai Yueju Opera Troupe and the city’s traditional Chinese opera radio channel.
The performances have been aired on the channel’s “Weekly Concert of Traditional Theater” program. Additionally, a promotional video is being shot, and the young performers will be giving public talks about the significance and elements of Yueju Opera.
The 30 newcomers, recruited by the Shanghai Yueju Opera Troupe last year, are being groomed as future artists of the genre.
Over the next three to five years, they will be engaged in a strict training regime, according to Liang Hongjun, deputy director of the troupe.
“We will offer them a wide platform for study and exchange,” says Liang. “The building of a theatrical youth troupe is also underway.”
Chen Xinyu, one of the young performers, has portrayed a variety of diverse roles in the series, including a carp fairy, the quick-witted maid Hong Niang and the sentimental lady Lin Daiyu.
Chen is an acolyte of the Wang vocal school, a style of singing and acting initiated by Yueju Opera master Wang Wenjuan.
“I chose a career in Yueju Opera because my grandparents were artists of Hunan huaguxi, or Flower Drum Opera,” Chen says. “They always hoped that I would inherit a love of China’s rich regional operas and perform on stage one day. I’m glad that I haven’t let them down.”
A native of Hunan Province, Chen says it was difficult at first for her to grasp the regional dialect of Zhejiang Province used in Yueju Opera.
“It took me a lot of time practicing the lyrics,” she says. “I have also learned to handle unexpected situations on the stage. It is an inspirational experience for me to breathe life into stage roles.”
When she was in college, Chen and fellow students experimented with more avant-garde productions, including an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
“To our surprise, the show was a huge success with young audiences,” Chen says. “That was a great boost to our confidence and showed that trendy elements popular with younger people can be introduced into this old genre.”
Most of the male roles in Yueju Opera are usually performed by women. The five male students among the young performers have a more limited range of characters, such as old men and comic characters.
Yao Lei, one of the males, is a student of famous Yueju Opera actor Shi Jihua. Despite suffering injuries when studying martial arts, he refused to give up his dream of becoming a Yueju Opera performer.
“Studying Yueju Opera has changed my life,” Yao says. “It has made me more confident and outgoing. I enjoy performing on the stage, and I want to improve as a performer.”
He says he is grateful that Shi encourages him to develop his own distinctive performance style rather than just mimicking predecessors.
The hard work, dedication and perseverance of the young performers draw high praise from their teachers.
Li Ping, a veteran Yueju Opera performer, has taught students for a decade. She says the current group of young performers are impressive because of their passion and individuality.
“Compared with former students, they have more personality,” says Li. “They are outspoken and active in pursuing what they want. They also have a close relationship with teachers. Sometimes they seem more like friends or even family.”
She says she encourages her students to practice, read and find inspiration in life.
“If they want to become a theater artist, they must spend time reading and observing life,” she says. “It is important that they broaden their vision and minds.”
Deputy director Liang says the young performers are typical of their generation — energetic, agile and sensitive.
Today, like many other traditional theaters, Yueju Opera faces the challenge of attracting younger audiences given that there are so many entertainment formats attracting their attention.
Shanghai Yueju Opera Troupe has undertaken projects to present shows in a more contemporary style. In 2013, its five-hour performance of “The Legend of Zhen Huan” condensed the popular 76-episode TV drama of the same name. It tells the story of an ancient Chinese concubine who learns to survive amid court intrigue.
The popularity of the TV series and the original online novel drew big crowds of young people to the Yueju Opera show. More than 70 performances have been staged.
“We need more good stories to display the theater’s diverse vocal schools,” veteran Li says, adding that Yueju Opera can attract young audiences if it moves with the times.
Artists in the Shanghai troupe regularly give cultural talks and conduct workshops for local students. They have taught students how to sing Yueju lyrics and invited them backstage after performances to see the technicality of theater performances.
Last year, the troupe’s small-theater play “Dongjun Gets Married” and a concert version of the classic “A Dream of Red Mansions” were held to wide acclaim.
Later this year, the troupe is creating “Sunu and Ba,” an original play based on an ancient Chinese legend. Also on tap is a Yueju Opera version of the hit animation series “The Moon of the Qin Dynasty.”
In the future, more hit TV dramas, animations and online novels are expected to inspire new opera material to appeal to younger audiences.