Zhang Huod­ing helps cham­pion art form

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE - By CHEN NAN chen­[email protected]­

Tick­ets for ac­tress Zhang Huod­ing’s lat­est per­for­mance in the clas­sic Pek­ing Opera Farewell My Con­cu­bine sold out fast, as they have done for all of her shows in China.

The per­for­mance will be staged at the Chang’an Grand Theatre in Bei­jing on Fri­day.

Tick­ets, which cost from 100 yuan to 1,080 yuan ($14 to $155) and went on sale on Jan 5, were all snapped up by noon. Ac­cord­ing to the on­line sales plat­form

Da­mai, each buyer could only pur­chase one ticket with their ID card.

On May 25, when the show was staged at the 19th Meet in Bei­jing Arts Fes­ti­val, tick­ets also sold out within a few hours, ac­cord­ing to Mu Wen from the China Arts and En­ter­tain­ment Group, which or­ga­nizes the an­nual event — one of the largest arts fes­ti­vals in the Chi­nese cap­i­tal.

An au­di­ence of more than 1,000 watched the show at the Chang’an Grand Theatre, with many peo­ple leav­ing mes­sages on­line ask­ing for Zhang to ap­pear in more per­for­mances.

Ne­ti­zen “Doudou”, a 24-year-old Shang­hai na­tive who watched Zhang per­form in Farewell My Con­cu­bine on Oct 26 at the Shang­hai Grand Theatre, said: “I am in­trigued by her craft as a Pek­ing Opera ac­tress, which is just as I imag­ined it to be.”

Vet­eran ac­tor Zheng Rong, 95, who watched the Bei­jing show on May 25 from his wheel­chair, said: “It’s great to watch her per­form — I cried. Thank­fully, Zhang and her team are keep­ing Pek­ing Opera alive.”

Fu Jin, a pro­fes­sor at the Na­tional Acad­emy of Chi­nese Theater Arts, said: “Zhang Huod­ing is phe­nom­e­nal. It’s hard to be­lieve that a Pek­ing Opera ac­tress can be as pop­u­lar as a pop star. Many of her fans are young peo­ple.

“With such tra­di­tional gen­res fac­ing chal­lenges from con­tem­po­rary forms of en­ter­tain­ment, it’s valu­able to have such a great ac­tress, who tries her best to let more peo­ple know about this genre.”

Known as jingju in Chi­nese, Pek­ing Opera is more than 200 years old. It com­bines singing, danc­ing, martial arts and ac­ro­bat­ics. UNESCO de­clared it an in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage in 2010.

Zhang, who will be 49 on Jan 24, had the idea of adapt­ing Farewell

My Con­cu­bine more than 10 years ago. About a month be­fore the show in Bei­jing on May 25, she an­nounced in a re­hearsal room at the Na­tional Acad­emy of Chi­nese Theatre Arts that she would ap­pear in the per­for­mance.

She was ex­cited and kept smil­ing, although she kept her com­ments brief.

Zhang re­al­ized her dream of adapt­ing Farewell My Con­cu­bine in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Pek­ing Opera artist Gao Mukun, 78, and com­poser Wan Ruix­ing, 79.

“I’d been dream­ing about adapt­ing the piece for over 10 years. I loved the per­for­mances of Mei Lan­fang and I deeply re­spect him,” Zhang said, re­fer­ring to the late Pek­ing Opera mas­ter.

Farewell My Con­cu­bine, which tells the love story be­tween Xiang Yu, a war­lord from the Chu King­dom, and his con­cu­bine, Yu Ji, is one of the best-known Pek­ing Op­eras. Adapted from the Kunqu Opera

Qian Jin Ji, writ­ten by Shen Cai dur­ing the Ming Dy­nasty (1368-1644),

Farewell My Con­cu­bine was first per­formed in Bei­jing in 1918 by Pek­ing Opera masters Yang Xiaolou (1878-1938) and Shang Xiaoyun (1900-76).

In 1922, Mei (1894-1961), along with Yang, per­formed the piece, which later be­came one of the best­known works in Mei’s reper­toire. It is also re­garded as a clas­sic work from the “Mei School”, the per­form­ing style he de­vel­oped.

Fu said that at one time it seemed im­pos­si­ble that the show could be adapted for Zhang, as she was trained by Pek­ing Opera mas­ter Zhao Rongchen and had kept up the tra­di­tions of the “Cheng School”. De­vel­oped by Cheng Yan­qiu (190458), this school was one of the four ma­jor per­form­ing styles of the genre to emerge in the early 20th cen­tury.

Like Mei, Cheng mas­tered the tech­niques of men play­ing fe­male roles, known as nan­dan. The Cheng School is known for in­ter­pret­ing tragic roles for women with fre­quent changes in rhythm.

“The two styles of tones, ges­tures and move­ments are very dif­fer­ent,” Fu said. “Zhang had to make lots of changes, chal­leng­ing both tra­di­tion and her­self.”

To ev­ery­one’s sur­prise, Zhang even changed one of the best-known scenes in Farewell My Con­cu­bine, in which Yu Ji dances with two swords.

In Mei’s sig­na­ture cre­ation, Yu dances in this scene with Xiang’s sword on their last night to­gether be­fore she uses the sword to kill her­self.

Un­like Mei’s ver­sion, in which the swords did not have tas­sels, Zhang added two long red ones at­tached to the swords in her in­ter­pre­ta­tion, making her per­for­mance more im­pres­sive, but dif­fi­cult.

Fu, a friend of Zhang’s who re­views her shows, said, “Her dress had many or­na­ments, such as pearls and raised em­broi­dery, which be­came en­tan­gled with her swords’ tas­sels as she turned around wav­ing her arms.”

The sword-danc­ing scene lasts about 10 min­utes and Zhang prac­ticed for it for a year.

“She told me that ev­ery day she prac­ticed sword danc­ing at the end of her daily re­hearsal be­cause it’s en­ergy-con­sum­ing,” Fu said. “It’s very dif­fi­cult for her to con­trol her breath­ing to sing af­ter danc­ing with swords. But she per­formed the part per­fectly.”

Zhang said in an in­ter­view af­ter her per­for­mance on May 25 that she was ex­hausted and sweat­ing heav­ily, adding, “I could do the moves bet­ter if I was 10 years younger.”

Born in Baicheng, Jilin prov­ince, she was in­tro­duced to tra­di­tional Chi­nese opera by her fa­ther, who per­formed Pingju Opera, a tra­di­tional art form pop­u­lar in north­ern China.

Her el­der brother, Zhang

Huo­qian, who be­gan study­ing Pek­ing Opera as a child, was trained to play qingyi — “grace­ful fe­male roles”.

In 1989, af­ter grad­u­at­ing from school in Tian­jin, Zhang Huod­ing joined a mil­i­tary Pek­ing Opera troupe in Bei­jing, and from 1995 to 2008 she per­formed with the Na­tional Pek­ing Opera Com­pany. She now teaches at the Na­tional Acad­emy of Chi­nese Theater Arts in Bei­jing.

She al­ways keeps her hair short and neat, dresses in col­or­ful out­fits, but rarely gives in­ter­views, keep­ing her per­sonal life a closely guarded se­cret.

Ye Shaolan, a 78-year-old Pek­ing Opera mas­ter who per­formed with Zhang Huod­ing in the clas­sic piece

The Leg­end of White Snake in 2016, said: “She re­ally loves Pek­ing Opera. Her life is sim­ple and although she rarely gives per­for­mances, she prac­tices ev­ery day in the re­hearsal room at the Na­tional Acad­emy of Chi­nese Theater Arts.”

Af­ter watch­ing her ren­di­tion of

Farewell My Con­cu­bine, Ye wrote in a Peo­ple’s Daily ar­ti­cle: “Zhang Huod­ing de­signed her moves and singing to­tally based on the role of Yu Ji. The per­for­mance style of the Cheng School blends nat­u­rally and con­vinc­ingly in her in­ter­pre­ta­tion, and the show de­serves to be watched over and over again.”

In 2016, the Na­tional Acad­emy of Chi­nese Theater Arts launched a project that en­abled Zhang Huod­ing to men­tor young fe­male Pek­ing Opera stu­dents per­form­ing in the style of the Cheng School. Ten ac­tresses have been re­cruited.

In May, her stu­dents staged a show to high­light clas­sic roles from the Cheng School, in­clud­ing Bai Suzhen from The Leg­end of White Snake and Zhu Ying­tai from The

But­ter­fly Lovers, at the Tian­qiao Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter in Bei­jing.

One of Zhang Huod­ing’s stu­dents, Li Li, 30, said: “She told me that the only way to guar­an­tee the qual­ity of a per­for­mance is to prac­tice again and again, from eye con­tact to breath­ing and move­ments. Although she speaks few words, she is very dis­ci­plined and al­ways in­spires us.”

Li started her Pek­ing Opera train­ing in her home­town of Tian­jin at age 7, be­fore mov­ing on to grad­u­ate with a mas­ter’s from the Na­tional Acad­emy of Chi­nese Theater Arts. She now works with the Jingju Theatre Com­pany of Bei­jing.

She said that be­fore she stud­ied with Zhang Huod­ing, she was strug­gling, as Pek­ing Opera was los­ing pop­u­lar­ity. She even con­sid­ered quit­ting her job as an ac­tress.

How­ever, in 2014, she changed her mind af­ter watch­ing a per­for­mance by Zhang Huod­ing at the Chang’an Grand Theatre. The stand­ing ova­tion, which Li said was the long­est she had ever seen, and the en­thu­si­as­tic re­sponse from the au­di­ence re­stored Li’s faith in the art.

“I used to be rest­less, as I had lost my ca­reer path as a Pek­ing Opera ac­tress, but now I am very calm and de­ter­mined. I am touched not only by Zhang Huod­ing’s solid tech­nique on­stage, but also by her at­ti­tude to­ward this old art,” said Li, who sports short hair, just like her men­tor.

Zhang Huod­ing’s fame has spread be­yond China. In 2015, she made her de­but in the United States with shows at the Lin­coln Cen­ter for the Per­form­ing Arts in New York.

Me­dia re­ports com­pared her per­for­mances with those given by Mei Lan­fang in New York in 1930. Then, as now, there was a sense that tra­di­tional Chi­nese opera could be pop­u­lar over­seas and even in­flu­ence the global arts scene.

In an in­ter­view with The New York Times pub­lished on Aug 31, 2015, be­fore she made her de­but in the US, Zhang Huod­ing said, “Pek­ing Opera has al­ways had a calm­ing ef­fect on me.” She also lamented that “the great age of Pek­ing Opera may be com­ing to an end”.

Per­for­mances mainly at­tract the older gen­er­a­tion. Few young peo­ple de­cide to take up the art form as a ca­reer, as it en­tails a rigid train­ing process and takes years be­fore a young per­former is ready to ap­pear on­stage.

Ac­cord­ing to the lat­est re­port by the Bei­jing Trade As­so­ci­a­tion for Per­for­mances, some 250,000 per­for­mances of all types were staged in Bei­jing in 2018, at­tract­ing au­di­ences of more than 11.2 mil­lion and gross­ing over 1.7 bil­lion yuan. How­ever, the re­port said tra­di­tional Chi­nese art forms, such as Pek­ing Opera, are los­ing fans.

Ac­cord­ing to Fu, from the Na­tional Acad­emy of Chi­nese Theater Arts, the govern­ment is ea­ger to re­vive the art form by of­fer­ing low-priced tick­ets and free shows. Some young artists are striv­ing to pop­u­lar­ize Pek­ing Opera among the younger gen­er­a­tion by ex­per­i­ment­ing with new tech­nol­ogy, ex­plor­ing the psy­cho­log­i­cal por­trayal of char­ac­ters and en­hanc­ing young peo­ple’s ap­pre­ci­a­tion of Chi­nese op­er­atic gen­res.

For ex­am­ple, Pek­ing Opera shows staged at smaller the­aters have been well-re­ceived by younger au­di­ences. Un­like tra­di­tional Chi­nese opera shows, which are usu­ally staged in large the­aters with grand stage sets and large casts, the smaller Pek­ing Opera pro­duc­tions only last for about one hour, in­volv­ing just a few ac­tors and a sim­ple set.

Fu said: “Au­di­ences do not have the pa­tience or in­ter­est in sit­ting in a theater to watch two-hour-long Pek­ing Opera shows. Com­pa­nies usu­ally present some of the best­known ex­cerpts from tra­di­tional reper­toires to give au­di­ences a glimpse of the art form, hop­ing that they will re­turn to the theater again. This is a pity, and we need more Pek­ing Opera stars like Zhang Huod­ing to re­vive the genre.”

Zhang Huod­ing is phe­nom­e­nal.

It’s hard to be­lieve that a Pek­ing Opera ac­tress can be as pop­u­lar as a pop star. Many of her fans are young peo­ple. With tra­di­tional Chi­nese art forms such as Pek­ing Opera fac­ing chal­lenges from con­tem­po­rary forms of en­ter­tain­ment, it’s valu­able to have such a great ac­tress, who tries her best to let more peo­ple know about this genre.”

Fu Jin, a pro­fes­sor at the Na­tional Acad­emy of Chi­nese Theater Arts


Zhang Huod­ing (left), a Pek­ing Opera star ac­tress, per­forms in Farewell My Con­cu­bine at the Chang’an Grand Theatre in Bei­jing in May.


Zhang Huod­ing per­forms as Yu Ji in Farewell My Con­cu­bine.

It took Zhang Huod­ing a year to mas­ter the sword danc­ing scene in Farewell My Con­cu­bine.

Top and above: Zhang Huod­ing had the idea of adapt­ing Farewell My Con­cu­bine more than 10 years ago.

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