Is it an opera or a stage play? Well ... both!
Veteran theater director Chen Xinyi’s latest production, entitled “Longting Hou,” uses Peking Opera performers and opera nuances in the completely different setting of a stage play. It comes to Shanghai next month.
Described as a “Peking Opera symphonic poem,” the play stars Peking Opera luminaries like Guan Dongtian, Chen Lincang and Zhang Dafa. Instead of singing their roles, they will deliver dialogue, albeit in the tones of Peking Opera.
Richard Strauss’s tone poem “Ein Heldenleben” (“A Hero’s Life”) will be used as background music.
The play tells the tale of Cai Lun, an inventor and court eunuch during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220). Popular with the royal court, he was given the official title of Longting Hou, which roughly translates as “marquis.”
The acknowledged inventor of modern papermaking committed suicide a year after the dynasty ended, following a false rumor that linked him to court treachery. The play focuses on Cai’s life, especially his lonely later years.
“I always like telling stories about heroes and digging out the humanistic side of spiritual giants,” said 82-year-old Chen, who has created stage works for historical figures like Emperor Li Shimin, ancient Chinese philosopher Shang Yang and Peking Opera master Mei Lanfang.
Chen said her works often focus on the personal growth of heroes. Instead of taking history books as a reference for her plots, she prefers to rely on her own research and imagination.
“History books were often written by the ruling class,” she said. “You don’t find truth there, only angles. As a theater director, I need to think about how historical figures and their stories might influence modern audiences in a positive way.”
To look for inspiration, Chen visited Longting Town in northwest China’s Shaanxi Province, where Cai’s tomb and memorial hall are located.
“I looked for details from the relics of his era,” said Chen. “Heroes who are capable of creating history must have distinguished personalities.”
She continued: “Cai’s father was a blacksmith, so I imaged that Cai had developed his tough character in childhood. But how did Cai win such respect from the emperor? As a eunuch, could Cai have still had offspring? Why did he eventually poison himself? I tried to look for answers and present them in the play.”
Chen said Cai’s heroism and his gentle obstinacy match the temperament of Peking Opera very well.
“Cai gave up love and family for his ideals and bravely accepted his fate,” Chen said. “It reminds me of the famous quote by Romain Rolland: “There is only one heroism in the world — to see the world as it is and to love it.”
The Strauss work will give the play an even grander vision, she said, because it’s also about a hero’s life.
Peking Opera artist Zhang, 73, is thrilled to be performing in a stage play for the first time.
“I have never acted in a play during my 60-year career,” Zhang said. “Ancient Chinese heroes should never be forgotten. It’s rare to see a work combining Peking Opera elements with drama. For me, it’s a learning process and exciting challenge.”
“Longting Hou” will be staged at People Grand Theater in downtown Huangpu District from October 22 to 25.