Staging a revival of an ancient art form
Former TV host gives Peking Opera a modern twist to boost popularity overseas, Andrew Moody and Yu Hang report.
Entrepreneur Ma Yingying is on a mission to bring Peking Opera to audiences in Europe and beyond. The 33-year-old founder and CEO of Lux Shine Culture Media Co, which stages modernized versions of traditional Chinese operas, believes greater global interest in China means the art form has the potential to one day rival Western opera.
“China’s economic development and rise have created this opportunity,” she said. “People in Europe, the United States and elsewhere want to know more about Chinese culture as a result, and there are very few things more representative of that than Peking Opera.”
Ma, a former Chinese TV presenter, plans to take her latest large-scale show, Liang Xiang Dong Fang, or Showing the Orient, to Europe or the US next year.
“This is something we are planning. We think our particular brand of Peking Opera, which uses modern stage design and other modern elements, is more suited to foreign audiences than traditional stagings.”
In trying to create an international audience, she is attempting to do what Beijing Peking Opera Theater and the China National Peking Opera Co, China’s main opera companies, have been unable to do.
“When they have tried to take (the art form) overseas, it hasn’t got such a warm welcome. It has always been seen as Chinese art rather than universal,” she said.
“The reason why it hasn’t taken off, despite having existed for more than 200 years, is because it is often seen as the same, unchanging. Its slow pace can widen its distance from the audience. People can’t understand its libretto and why it takes three to four hours to tell often a very simple story.”
With Lux Shine, Ma’s whole approach is to adapt performances for the modern audience, often using modern costumes, but also blending a performance with other artistic formats such as ballet, Western opera, and rhythm and blues.
“I try to stage operas to suit the audience,” she said. “I once combined a fashion catwalk with a traditional opera for an audience that was largely involved in the fashion industry. I did another performance that combined Peking and Italian operas, and there were also some ballet dancers wearing Peking Opera costumes.
“The aim is to make it exciting and relevant. This has been sadly lacking in the past.”
Ma, who brings a real zeal to her work, is a well-known figure in China, having previously been a presenter on CCTV-11, the state broadcaster’s arts channel.
Raised in remote Xihe county of Northwest China’s Gansu province, her father was a senior engineer for the local TV station and her mother was a TV announcer.
“I certainly don’t come from a wealthy background. It was interesting that all my family members had experience working in TV, though,” she said. “This was very useful. When I started my career, I somehow felt cut out for the medium.”
Ma got her first taste of Peking Opera when she played the leading role of A Qing Sao in the opera Shajiabang. “She (the character) is 30 years old and I was in Grade 2 at elementary school. The performance proved a success, as my schoolmates always recognized me on campus after that.”
She went on to study art at Lanzhou University in Gansu’s provincial capital and, after a spell working on Gansu TV, she gained a master’s degree at the Communication University of China in Beijing. She joined China Central Television in 2007 and often presented Peking Opera performances for the channel.
“It was then I almost fell out of love with Peking Opera,” she recalled. “It was at times almost a kind of suffering. I used to spend hours watching shows I didn’t really like, and I didn’t find many productions or performers I really liked.
“I felt there was the possibility of somehow fitting it to the needs of a modern audience, and it was then I got the idea to launch my business.”
Lux Shine opened last year and employs 13 people, including directors, scriptwriters, performers and photographers, and has a cast of regular freelance performers. The company received backing from Entertainment Workshop, an angel investment institution, as well as a film company and many other partners.
Despite progress in many areas of society, however, she said her attempts to popularize Peking Opera are still being held back by the legacy of the “cultural revolution” (1966-76).
“Peking Opera stagnated for about 20 years in the 1960s and 1970s. Then, after the reform and opening-up, Western arts flooded into China and the Chinese found them more accessible than our traditional opera.”
Yet Ma’s stagings have been a hit with domestic audiences, and her company is now designing an app for mobile devices to further popularize Chinese opera. “This is the way forward for the art form,” she said. “It is a way to change people’s perceptions of Peking Opera.”
She believes it is important to get away from some of the formulaic requirements of the art form, such as instrumental music, vocal performances, mime, dance and acrobatics.
“They can put off young Chinese audiences,” she said.
Peking Opera is often seen as less intellectual than traditional Western operas such as those by Mozart, Verdi and Wagner, but Ma hopes Western audiences will see through that.
“A lot of people don’t understand that Peking Opera was not actually created for the mass audience. It was meant to be thought-provoking, an art designed for people of high status such as emperors and members of the imperial household. Ordinary people had no access to it,” she explained. “I very much hope we’re successful in bringing it to international audiences.” Contact the writers through firstname.lastname@example.org