Venues offer platform for dramatic experimentation
Two friends met up after work late last month in Beijing before heading off to a live show. This was no pop concert or star-studded musical, but a Cantonese Opera performance of Farewell My Concubine staged at Star Theaters, one of the smallest such venues in the city.
"We bought the tickets right after the show was announced in case it sold out," said Meng Ying, 27, who works for a financial company based in the capital.
In 2017, she watched a performance of Farewell My Concubine when it was first staged in Beijing, and was fascinated by both the atmosphere in the small theater and by Cantonese Opera, an art form she was not familiar with. She recommended it to her friend, who joined her for the show after work on Oct 30.
"Although we don't speak Cantonese, we could understand the lyrics through subtitles displayed at the back of the stage," Meng said. "The storyline was clear and easy to take in. It was a totally different experience from big-budget shows at large theaters."
Small theaters have become trendy venues for young people in urban areas who are looking for a taste of traditional Chinese opera with a contemporary twist — from the method of storytelling to the music, stage design and costumes.
For artists striving to popularize the art form among younger generation, these venues offer a platform to experiment with new technology, explore the psychological portrayal of characters and enhance young people's appreciation of Chinese operatic genres.
Last month's staging of Farewell My Concubine, featuring actors based in Hong Kong, including Keith Lai as Xiang Yu and Janet Wong as Yu Ji, was adapted from the classic Chinese story set against the backdrop of conflict between the Han and the Chu, major contending powers in the latter years of the Qin Dynasty (221206 BC).
Combining traditional Cantonese Opera techniques and contemporary stage and lighting design, the show took shape in 2016 and was previously staged in Beijing in 2017 and last year.
Unlike traditional Chinese opera shows, which are usually staged in large theaters with grand stage sets and large casts, the 70minute Cantonese Opera performance featured just three actors and a simple set.
Meng became familiar with the classic story after watching the eponymous 1993 movie, directed by Chen Kaige and starring Leslie Cheung, Zhang Fengyi and Gong Li, which won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for an Oscar.
"When Yu Ji killed herself, she looked at Xiang Yu, the man she loved. As I was so close to the stage, I could see the facial expressions of the actor and actress, which was a very touching moment," Meng said.
The short version of Farewell My Concubine was produced by Naomi Chung, head of the Xiqu Center at the West Kowloon Cultural District in Hong Kong, and was written and directed by actor Keith Lai.
Two hours before the show, Lai sat in front of a dressing room mirror at the theater. Holding a variety of brushes, he applied his makeup as stage workers busied themselves ironing his costumes, testing microphones and adjusting the lighting.
After about an hour, with his face painted black and white, Lai was transformed into the character Xiang Yu, king of the Chu Kingdom, who falls victim to the forces of Liu Bang, the Han king, and prepares to meet Yu Ji, his beloved concubine, for the last time.
Lai, 35, who studied Cantonese Opera as a child and made his stage debut when he was 11, said: "Farewell My Concubine is mostly associated with Peking Opera, not Cantonese Opera. We were not sure if the audience in Beijing would like the show when we first came here. But, surprisingly, they gave us a warm reception and asked lots of questions afterward."
Cantonese Opera, like many traditional Chinese operas, combines singing, martial arts and acting. It is performed mainly in the Cantonese dialect and is popular mostly in Guangdong province, Hong Kong and Macao. In September 2009, it was placed on UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Lai recalled that the first time he performed the show at the theater, accompanied by a six-piece band on both sides of the stage, he was not comfortable with the audience being so close.
"I didn't know where to look, because the audience was so near to the stage. As I gestured to the pounding drums and cymbals, I didn't know if I was moving too quickly for them, or if the music was too loud," Lai said, adding that he had been left in no doubt after the first show, when the audience gave the cast a standing ovation.
Lai, who graduated from City University of Hong Kong with a bachelor's degree in Chinese language, has a hectic schedule of about 200 performances a year.
In addition to Farewell My Concubine, Lai, along with actress Janet Wong, premiered his latest Cantonese Opera, Wenguang Explores the Valley, adapted from the folk tale The Generals of the Yang Family, at Star Theaters on Nov 1.
"The capital has a firm fan base for stage productions presented at smaller theaters, so we decided to premiere our new show there," Lai said.
With three auditoriums, each with a capacity of about 200, Star Theaters, founded 10 years ago, was the first venue of its kind in Beijing and has become a key attraction for drama aficionados who enjoy experimental productions.
Last year, it staged more than 600 shows, attracting audiences totaling more than 100,000. Ticket prices are kept affordable at 100 yuan ($14.90), which has also helped attract fans.
From Oct 16 to Dec 31, more than 70 traditional Chinese opera performances will be staged at Star Theaters during the Sixth Xiqu Opera Black Box Festival, along with seminars, exhibitions and workshops. The festival covers a wide range of operatic genres, including Peking, Cantonese, Kunqu, Yueju and Huangmeixi.
Han Yuechao, a Star Theaters producer, said: "Young audiences are open to various art forms. Although traditional Chinese operas are often considered old-fashioned, directors, scriptwriters and actors present these old art forms with fresh ideas. For example, the stories are told with a contemporary touch, which connects to and resonates with our daily lives."
During the past six years, more than 80 traditional Chinese opera productions have been staged during the festival, attracting a total of about 100,000 fans.
Yan Qinggu, director and actor with the Shanghai Peking Opera Troupe, said, "The most appealing aspect of staging a Peking Opera performance at a small theater is the way the actors challenge the traditional acting style and directors customize the decor and plot to match the size of the audience."
Last month, as part of the festival, Yan staged his one-man Peking Opera The Death of a Government Clerk, adapted from Russian writer Anton Chekhov's short story of the same title. The show premiered in Shanghai in 2007.
In 2000, the Shanghai Peking Opera Troupe launched a project to encourage young directors and actors to create new pieces with innovative ideas. Yan set The Death of a Government Clerk during the Ming Dynasty (13681644) and combined local dialect, pingtan (storytelling with music and singing in the Suzhou dialect) and mime with Peking Opera.
The result was beyond Yan's expectations. For the Shanghai native, who started practicing the 200yearold art form when he was 11, it was a bold experiment to break the mold, as Peking Opera follows strict and systematic rules.
"It is a complicated and highly stylized art form that combines acrobatics and martial arts as well as singing, dancing and drama. It is adaptable and versatile when mixed with other art forms," Yan said.
For the Beijing festival, young scriptwriter Zhang Chuyin wrote the story Nobody, based on The Cop and the Anthem written by William Sydney Porter, better known by his pen name O. Henry.
Zhou Chuanjia, a 75yearold theater historian who graduated from Peking University with a major in Chinese language and gained his master's degree from the Chinese National Academy of Arts, said the concept of small theater came from Andre Antoine, a French actor-director who formed the Free Theatre, an experimental company, in Paris in 1887. By staging smaller productions, the company aimed to support young scriptwriters, directors and actors' artistic creativity and experimentation to reach more-diverse audiences.
During the latter part of the previous century, the concept was embraced by Chinese playwrights, including Tian Han and Yang Hansheng.
In 1982, Absolute Signal, a Chinese play written by Gao Xingjian and directed by Lin Zhaohua, was considered to be the first small theater performance in the country. It was produced by the Beijing People's Art Theatre.
Other Chinese theater pioneers, such as director Meng Jinghui, have also worked to spice up their shows by premiering them at small theaters, using experimental elements such as dance, music and even operatic singing.
He Lulu, a scriptwriter based in Beijing, watched Meng's experimental play, Longing for the Secular World, in 1995 at the Central Academy of Drama, when she was a university sophomore.
"I couldn't sleep after watching the play, because I was so excited. The way the story was told and in which the audience became involved in the play was so different," said He, who shared her experience as an independent scriptwriter during a recent forum on stage productions for small theaters held at the Tianqiao Performing Arts Center in Beijing.
The forum also launched a festival for small theaters in Beijing this month and next, with more than 20 plays being staged at eight venues.
Fu Weibo, director of the China Association of Performing Arts' Small Theater Committee, said, "Plays made for small theaters can be seen almost every night in Beijing, and this vibrant scene started about a decade ago, with many young directors and scriptwriters testing their ideas at such venues." Fu formerly worked for the Beijing People's Art Theatre as manager of an experimental venue.
The first Peking Opera show staged at a small theater was Ma Qian PoShui, directed by Zhang Manjun, premiered in 2000 by the Jingju Theatre Company of Beijing. Jingju, also known as Peking Opera, was listed as an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2010.
Ma Qian Po Shui tells the story of a troubled couple during the Han Dynasty (206 BCAD 220). A wife, unhappy with her life, leaves her husband. After he is given an official position and finds success, she wants to return to him, but he rejects her.
Bai Ailian, a director with the Jingju Theatre Company, who has overseen different versions of the show, said: "It broke the routine of traditional Peking Opera and used a different way of storytelling, including flashbacks and interposed narration. It was well-received by the audience at the time because they could connect with the story, which featured the causes of friction in marital life and how money can destabilize a marriage."
She added that the music was also different to that used for traditional Peking Opera. For example, in one scene the husband recalls the good times when the couple had just married. The guzheng, or Chinese zither, is the only musical instrument played onstage, rather than the traditional gong and drum. But when he takes in the reality of the situation, the husband becomes disappointed and frustrated. The music stops and the guzheng player breaks one string on purpose to create an atmosphere of sadness and to portray the husband's sudden awakening.
Zhou said that according to a survey in 2015, there were 348 forms of traditional Chinese opera, a fall of about 60 from 1999. Many other operatic forms are also fighting to survive.
"Small theaters may not be the saviors of traditional Chinese opera, but are a way to give the old art forms new life," Zhou said.
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