In­ter­est picks up

A tra­di­tional art form is find­ing more fans as Bai Yan­sheng’s pop­u­lar Ace of the Aces, Lin­gren on Shanxi Satel­lite TV Sta­tion pre­pares for its sec­ond sea­son. Chen Nan re­ports.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE - Con­tact the writer at chen­nan@chi­nadaily.com.cn

Tra­di­tional Chi­nese opera is at­tract­ing new fans, thanks to a pop­u­lar TV show that is pre­par­ing for a sec­ond sea­son.

Chi­nese TV pro­ducer, di­rec­tor and host Bai Yan­sheng has won rave re­views and awards for his TV pro­grams over the years, which have been ded­i­cated to in­tro­duc­ing and pro­mot­ing tra­di­tional Chi­nese op­eras. But the se­ries he is cur­rently work­ing on is his most pre­cious project.

Ti­tled Ace of the Aces, Lin­gren, the show, pro­duced and aired by Shanxi Satel­lite TV Sta­tion, will start its sec­ond sea­son in Jan­uary 2017. The first sea­son pre­miered in May 2016. In Chi­nese, lin­gren refers to an ac­tor or ac­tress. The show, which fea­tures top Chi­nese opera artists from around the coun­try, is a com­pe­ti­tion span­ning three months.

Tra­di­tional Chi­nese opera has over 200 gen­res, such as the well-known Peking, Kunqu op­eras and more lo­cal­ized types, such as Chuanju Opera from Sichuan prov­ince and Jinju Opera from Shanxi prov­ince.

“These an­cient art forms of­fer us end­less in­spi­ra­tion,” says Bai, who is — as usual — pro­ducer, di­rec­tor and host.

The 48-year-old was born and raised in Huanghua city, He­bei prov­ince. He has been a fan of tra­di­tional Chi­nese opera since child­hood. He was drawn to the lo­cal opera in his home­town, He­bei bangzi, due to its martial arts mo­tifs and the song-based sto­ry­telling.

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from He­bei Univer­sity, where he ma­jored in Chi­nese, Bai joined the lo­cal TV sta­tion in 1991. He later be­came a TV host on China Cen­tral Tele­vi­sion.

Bai toyed with the idea of the show for 10 years. But it was only af­ter quit­ting CCTV in 2013 that he be­gan work­ing with the Shanxi Satel­lite TV Sta­tion.

Shanxi prov­ince is home to over 50 kinds of tra­di­tional op­eras and there is a large lo­cal fan base, says Hu Sup­ing, chief of the public­ity depart­ment of Shanxi prov­ince.

Bai is ex­cited that the com­peti­tors are vet­eran opera artists and na­tional award win­ners.

“As tra­di­tional Chi­nese opera sees its pop­u­lar­ity wane, we want to sup­port its re­vival by show­cas­ing the beauty of this art form through TV,” he says.

He adds that one of the big­gest chal­lenges he faced was to con­vince artists to join the show.

“They are stars in their own right. It took me a long time to per­suade them,” he says.

He also says that it would have been much eas­ier for him to in­vite fresh tal­ent to per­form in the show, but he did not do it be­cause “only through per­for­mances by these sea­soned artists can au­di­ences see au­then­tic Chi­nese op­eras”.

Bai says that what mat­ters is not the re­sult of the com­pe­ti­tion, but the op­por­tu­nity — both for the artists and au­di­ences — to en­joy tra­di­tional op­eras.

This view is echoed by 65-year-old artist Zhang Lan, who spe­cial­izes in Yuju Opera, which orig­i­nated and thrived in Cen­tral China’s He­nan prov­ince in the late Ming (1368–1644) and early Qing (1644-1911) dy­nas­ties.

“Usu­ally, tra­di­tional Chi­nese op­eras are per­formed in the­aters. But TV helps us gain more fans,” Zhang says.

Zhang is the two-time win­ner of China’s top theater award, the Plum Blos­som Prize, and is the di­rec­tor of the Yuju Opera Troupe of Liaocheng, Shan­dong prov­ince.

She started learn­ing Yuju Opera at age 3 from her father, who was also a per­former.

Ex­plain­ing why she joined the show, she says: “We give hun­dreds of per­for­mances in re­mote vil­lages in Shan­dong, which en­ables us to build a spe­cial bond with the au­di­ences. But I also want young peo­ple to see this art form, and that’s why I took part.”

When the TV show’s first sea­son was tele­cast ear­lier this year, it evoked a mixed re­sponse with some ques­tion­ing the show’s pro­fes­sion­al­ism as the judges were not tra­di­tional Chi­nese opera artists, while oth­ers say the dif­fer­ent opera forms could not be com­pared as each is dif­fer­ent.

Bai was also frus­trated when his in­vi­ta­tions were turned down by some artists and some quit in the mid­dle of the show.

“But we did not give up be­cause we be­lieved this was the right thing to do,” says Bai.

“I wanted to ap­peal to the au­di­ence, who were not tra­di­tional opera fans. New fans, es­pe­cially the younger gen­er­a­tion, are the fu­ture for these old arts.”

Mean­while, Bai also in­vited five celebri­ties to be judges for the show, in­clud­ing Guo De­gang — a co­me­dian who spe­cial­izes in xi­ang­sheng, or crosstalk, a tra­di­tional Chi­nese art form — and Guo Baochang, a renowned scriptwriter and di­rec­tor.

Speak­ing about his ex­pe­ri­ence on the show, the co­me­dian, who started learn­ing ping­shu, a tra­di­tional Chi­nese art form of sto­ry­telling and singing, at age 8 and later learned other tra­di­tional art forms, says: “Tra­di­tional Chi­nese op­eras best rep­re­sent Chi­nese cul­ture and are al­most a part of its iden­tity. This is our art form be­cause it uses lo­cal lan­guage and is full of tra­di­tional val­ues.”

Fu Jin, a pro­fes­sor from the Na­tional Academy of Chi­nese Theater Arts, who is also one of the judges, says that be­sides show­ing peo­ple how pre­cious the art form is, tra­di­tional opera artists need to cre­ate works that au­di­ences can ap­pre­ci­ate and be in­ter­ested in.

“With so­cial me­dia, you get in­stant feed­back from the au­di­ence,” says Fu.

Top and above: Ace­oftheAces,Lin­gren, pro­duced and aired by Shanxi Satel­lite TV Sta­tion, fea­tures top Chi­nese opera artists from around the coun­try.

PHO­TOS BY WANG XIAOXI / FOR CHINA DAILY

Bai Yan­sheng hosts the show, which will start its sec­ond sea­son in Jan­uary.

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