Music to the ears: the theater that became 'hallowed ground' of opera

Tan Weiyun
Tianchan Stage near People’s Square was born out of an artistic rivalry in the early 1900s and went on to define artists and performances for decades.
Tan Weiyun

Editor’s note:

Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither was Shanghai. Once dubbed “the Paris of the East,” the city has evolved into a fusion of multiculturalism. Along the way, Shanghai has accumulated a repository of stories about the people and events that have shaped its history. Five areas of the city occupy pride of place in that journey: People’s Square, Jing’an Temple, Xujiahui, Lujiazui and Xintiandi. This series, a collaboration with Shanghai Local Chronicles Library, visits them all to follow in the footsteps of time.

In the modern era of Chinese theater, there’s a saying in the Peking Opera community: “If you haven’t performed at Tianchan, you cannot be considered famous.”

Tianchan Theater on Fuzhou Road near People’s Square has long been hallowed ground in the opera world, hosting countless legends and bearing witness to the evolution of the art form in the city.

At the dawn of the 20th century, investors You Hongqing, Gui Junqing and Xu Shaoqing founded what was called Dangui First Stage on Hubei Road — a venue primarily for Peking Opera.

However, as Dangui’s fame and fortune grew, so did rifts among the investors, eventually leading to Xu’s departure from the founding trio.

Xu formed a new group of investors and rented space at Wing On Company, adjacent to Dangui. He named the new site Tianchan Theater.

The name was inspired by the Chinese idiom changong zhegui (蟾宫折桂), which literally means “to pluck a branch of osmanthus in the toad palace” and is a common metaphor for achieving top honors in the imperial court examinations. The toad palace refers to the moon because, in Chinese mythology, moon goddess Chang’e took the pill of immortality and floated up to the moon, where she was transformed into a three-legged toad.

Xu’s intention was clear: to eclipse rival Dangui not only in artistic grandeur but also in box-office success.

In 1916, Tianchan Theater opened its doors and quickly made a name for itself. It attracted top opera talent like Tan Xinpei (1847-1917). The theater's fame further soared in 1919 when legendary singer Xun Huisheng (1900-68) performed in "Hua Tian Cuo" and made Tianchan his performance base.

In the early 1920s, Gu Zhuxuan took over as the theater’s new boss.

By 1928, with performances by another opera great, Zhou Xinfang (1895-1975), Tianchan was at the pinnacle of its fame, fulfilling its founder's ambition.

Zhou, who was based at Tianchan, was at the forefront of groundbreaking opera, such as "Longfeng Pa," "Huali Yuan" and "Hongmen Yan." His 1928 portrayal of Pan Jinlian, a notorious femme fatale character from the classic novel “Water Margin,” was a box-office hit, hailed by critics as a fusion of traditional and modern opera.

Traditionally, Peking Opera featured all-male casts, with female roles played by men. Tianchan Theater, however, marked a significant departure from this convention by featuring female performers. It was a bold, sometimes controversial move, but Shanghai opera aficionados quickly embraced it.

Music to the ears: the theater that became 'hallowed ground' of opera

Tianchan Yifu Theater reopened in February 2021 after renovations.

In 1931, when the lease with Wing On Company expired, Gu relocated Tianchan Theater to Fuzhou Road. The new site was a model of theater architecture in its day. Spanning three levels, it had a seating capacity of 3,436.

Constructed with the then-innovative reinforced-concrete technique, the auditorium was circular, and the theater itself a semi-circular proscenium, extended 5 meters into the auditorium. Flanking the main stage were two side stages, and below it was the orchestra pit.

The theater imported a sophisticated sky lantern projector from Japan, which allowed for the creation of various stage effects, like thunderstorms, clouds, rain and celestial bodies.

Tianchan was a first among Shanghai's theaters to dazzle audiences with never-before-seen visual experiences that heightened theatrical performances.

In 1932, Peking Opera master Mei Lanfang's (1894-1961) relocation to Shanghai brought new classics to the theater, including "Kang Jin Bing" and "Shengsi Hen." Each performance drew packed houses.

After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, Tianchan Theater underwent several administrative changes. In 1989, it was taken over by Shanghai Peking Opera Theater.

Under the new management, substantial renovations were carried out, with funding from leading entertainment industry figures like Run Run Shaw (1907-2014) of Hong Kong.

The theater was renamed Tianchan Yifu Theater and equipped with a new stage, sound and lighting systems, more comfortable seating, electronic subtitles and central air conditioning.

Special Reports