REIN­VENT­ING PEK­ING OPERA Chen Nan re­ports.

Pek­ing Opera master aims to push the bound­aries of tra­di­tional the­ater with shows that give the old art form a mod­ern feel.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - LIFE -

Some mem­bers of the au­di­ence are thrilled, shak­ing their heads to the mu­sic, while oth­ers block their ears and leave the the­ater.

“Th­ese are typ­i­cal re­ac­tions at Pek­ing Opera per­for­mances,” says Li Baochun.

“Some view­ers, mostly se­niors, are diehard fans, while young peo­ple find this an­cient art out­dated.”

The 67-year-old Pek­ing Opera master, the son of the late master of this old art form, Li Shaochun, does not deny that Pek­ing Opera, which com­bines singing, danc­ing, ac­ro­bat­ics and mar­tial arts, like many other such art forms in China, is strug­gling to sur­vive in the face of a fad­ing fan base.

The di­rec­tor of Taipei Li-yuan Pek­ing Opera The­ater — which he founded in 1998 af­ter he moved to Taiwan — is push­ing the bound­aries of tra­di­tional the­ater and reach­ing out to au­di­ences, es­pe­cially the younger gen­er­a­tion, with per­for­mances that give the old art a con­tem­po­rary touch.

From Aug 11 to 13, Li will use Bei­jing’s Poly The­ater to present three pro­duc­tions: The Palace of Eter­nal Life, which fo­cuses on the story of Li Long ji, the sev­enth em­peror of the Tang Dy­nasty (618-907) and his fa­vorite con­cu­bine Yang Yuhuan; The Lo­tus Lamp, which is based on the Chi­nese leg­end about Chen Xiang sav­ing his mother; and Zhao Kuangyin, the story of the first em­peror of the Song Dy­nasty (9601279).

Ac­tors from Taiwan and the Chi­nese main­land, in­clud­ing Tian­jin Pek­ing Opera The­ater and Suzhou Kunqu Opera The­ater, will per­form to­gether in the shows.

Since its birth, Taipei Li-yuan Pek­ing Opera The­ater has pro­duced 44 orig­i­nal Pek­ing Opera works, which have been staged nearly 200 times.

All th­ese works are “new old plays”, a brain­child of Li, in which “new” re­fers to new el­e­ments and tech­niques and “old” means the tra­di­tion.

Among the cre­ations are Yun Luo Moun­tain, a re­vised ver­sion of a clas­sic Pek­ing Opera work, which Li’s fa­ther per­formed, and The Jester, a Pek­ing Opera ver­sion of Giuseppe Verdi’s clas­si­cal opera, Rigo­letto.

For Li, ab­sorb­ing new things keeps the Chi­nese opera fresh.

Ev­ery year, Li trav­els around the world to watch var­i­ous shows — from con­tem­po­rary dance and Broad­way per­for­mances to rock con­certs.

For ex­am­ple, in The Palace of Eter­nal Life, which pre­miered in Taipei in June 2016, Li mixed the Pek­ing Opera and Kunqu Opera singing styles.

“Pek­ing Opera and Kunqu Opera have many ways to in­ter­pret a role, es­pe­cially com­pli­cated emo­tions.

“The soft, smooth Kunqu Opera style con­trasts with the pow­er­ful Pek­ing Opera style, high­light­ing the per­son­al­i­ties and con­flict,” says Li, who plays the em­peror in the piece along­side Kunqu Opera per­former Xu Si­jia as Yang Guifei.

In The Lo­tus Lamp, in which an “army” of tigers pre­pares for bat­tle, Li blends Pek­ing Opera with con­tem­po­rary dance, ac­com­pa­nied by a Western sym­phonic band and tra­di­tional Chi­nese per­cus­sion.

Li, who was born in Bei­jing, stud­ied Pek­ing Opera with his late grand­fa­ther, Li Guichun, who per­formed at the Qing Dy­nasty (1644-1911) court, and his fa­ther.

Li stud­ied lao sheng (older, male) roles and wu sheng (male mar­tial arts) roles for Pek­ing Opera at the Bei­jing The­ater Arts School from age 10.

Af­ter grad­u­a­tion in 1969, he worked at the China Pek­ing Opera The­ater, now the China Na­tional Pek­ing Opera Com­pany, be­fore mov­ing to the United States with his fam­ily in the late 1980s.

Later, he even con­sid­ered quitting act­ing, and opened an ice-cream shop in the US to make a liv­ing.

“But my fa­ther al­ways re­minded me of who I am and what I am good at. I think Pek­ing Opera is in my DNA,” says Li.

Speak­ing about Li’s work, Vivien Koo Huai-chun, the CEO of the Taipei-based C.F. Koo Foun­da­tion, which founded the Taipei Li-yuan Pek­ing Opera The­ater, says: “His cre­ations can some­times be unconventional and you are not sure about his ideas un­til you see the per­for­mance.”

The foun­da­tion, which was set up by her late diplo­mat fa­ther Koo Chen-fu, also known as C. F. Koo, in 1987, pro­motes cross-Straits ex­changes and the de­vel­op­ment of Pek­ing Opera in Taiwan.

Trac­ing her fam­ily’s links with Pek­ing Opera, Koo Huaichun says her late grand­fa­ther, Koo Hsien-jung, a busi­ness­man who moved to Taiwan from Fu­jian prov­ince about a cen­tury ago, was among the first to in­vite Pek­ing Opera mas­ters from the Chi­nese main­land to per­form in Taiwan.

“The rea­son was sim­ple. He was homesick and he wanted to lis­ten to sounds from home,” says Koo Huai-chun.

“Pek­ing Opera was a sound that many peo­ple who moved to Taiwan were fa­mil­iar with. In the 1930s, there were many Pek­ing Opera troupes and theaters to show the art form in Taiwan.”

About a decade ago, Taipei Li-yuan Pek­ing Opera The­ater started tour­ing the Chi­nese main­land and Li be­gan to in­vite Pek­ing Opera mas­ters to per­form in Taiwan and coach ac­tors.

Speak­ing about his plans, Li says: “I like shop­ping. So, when I see lux­ury brands like Chanel and Louis Vuit­ton, I think th­ese brands can keep their clas­sic look while in­tro­duc­ing new prod­ucts. We can do the same with Pek­ing Opera.”

Con­tact the writer at chen­nan@chi­nadaily.com.cn

My fa­ther al­ways re­minded me of who I am and what I am good at. I think Pek­ing Opera is in my DNA.” Li Baochun, di­rec­tor, Taipei Li-yuan Pek­ing Opera The­ater

PHO­TOS PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Taiwan-based Pek­ing Opera master Li Baochun (cen­ter) will lead the Taipei Li-yuan Pek­ing Opera The­ater in per­for­mances at the Poly The­ater in Bei­jing this week­end.

From right: Li with Vivien Koo Huai-chun, CEO of the Taipei-based C.F. Koo Foun­da­tion, and Guo Wen­peng, CEO of Poly The­ater Man­age­ment Co Ltd, at a pro­mo­tional event in Bei­jing.

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