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07 September 2022, 11:35

His world's a stage

BEIJING, 7 September (BelTA - China Daily). - Acting was, is and always will be the first love of National Peking Opera Company's new vice-president, Chen Nan reports.

Huguosi Street was one of Beijing's busiest commercial avenues in the olden days. It also housed the residence of Peking Opera master Mei Lanfang (1894-1961). Not far from Mei's address, the first theater for Peking Opera performances came up in 1954, five years after the founding of the People's Republic of China.

The neighborhood has changed over the decades, but the theater still stands tall and is currently managed by the National Peking Opera Company. Tian Lei cherishes the hours he spends there, training and rehearsing. Costume-clad and armed with a prop spear, the 42-year-old strides across the stage, practicing a slew of martial art movements, before ending the drill with a liangxiang (striking a pose on the stage).

Tian has been working with the opera company for 10 years. Its premises are a 10-minute drive from the theater and his colleagues train there. He, however, prefers the hallowed stage. "I come to the theater almost every day because I enjoy the solitude this building offers. Rehearsing here helps me feel closer to Peking Opera masters who once graced the stage," he says.

As one of Peking Opera's top actors, Tian performed in back-to-back shows of Five Daughters Celebrating a Grand Birthday, staged at Mei Lanfang Grand Theater on Aug 25 and 26. The show is adapted from a Yueju Opera classic of the same name. Yueju Opera is a national intangible cultural heritage that originated in Shaoxing, Zhejiang province, and is hugely popular in Shanghai.

Five Daughters Celebrating a Grand Birthday was the first performance of a newly founded youth troupe of the National Peking Opera Company. Tian was selected to play the lead role of Yang Jikang, a government official whose five daughters returned home to celebrate his 60th birthday.

The recent shows marked the 40th anniversary of the premiere of the Yueju Opera classic. The national company decided to adapt it into a Peking Opera production to offer young performers a chance to display their skills.

"There are 17 major roles and some minor ones in the opera show. For Peking Opera performers, especially young actors, it is important to land a major role where they can sing onstage. Being heard by audiences is a matter of great pride," Tian says.

He says young Peking Opera performers usually get "walk-on parts without names" and it takes them years to land an opportunity to actually act onstage. Working together helped him share his own experiences with them, about how he went from being a little-known performer to an award-winning actor.

Peking Opera was born in 1790, when four Huiju Opera troupes visited Beijing as part of the 80th birthday celebrations of Emperor Qianlong (1711-99).Huiju opera was one of the traditional operas based on which Peking Opera was formed.

In 1840, Peking Opera formally began taking shape under the reign of Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908), an enthusiast of the art form. The opera genre gained wide popularity with its blend of stylized action, singing, dialogue, mime, acrobatic fighting and dancing, with troupes being formed in Beijing, Tianjin and Shanghai.

Peking Opera reached its zenith in the first half of the 20th century, when performers mastered acting and singing skills, and their fan base grew rapidly across the country. Mei-arguably the biggest Peking Opera star in modern history-not only achieved great success at home, but also enjoyed a worldwide following. He went on tour to the United States in 1930 with shows that were sold out.

"It is true that Peking Opera is all about individual stars. These stars win over audiences with their unique performances and can pass down their styles by taking on apprentices," Tian says. "That is why the company works very hard to train and support young actors, who are the future of this art form."

Born in Zibo, Shandong province, Tian grew up in a traditional Chinese opera environment. His grandfather composed works for Lyuju Opera while his father played musical instruments in the troupe.

With a history dating back to more than 100 years ago, Lyuju is considered as Shandong's best-known local opera and ranks among the eight main regional operas of China. In 2008, it was also listed as a national intangible cultural heritage.

As a child, Tian learned to play various musical instruments. At 10, he went to Shanghai to study Peking Opera. He recalls that he never planned to work as an actor, even though he was drawn to the opera genre because it extols social values such as loyalty, honesty and integrity.

In the beginning, he trained to perform roles in wenxi (characters that only act and sing, without acrobatic and martial art skills). As his voice changed with puberty, he received training for roles in wuxi, specializing in martial art skills, the opposite of wenxi.

"I had no idea about my future as a Peking Opera actor. What if my voice was never suited to singing again, I thought, and decided to arm myself with more skills. I trained very hard to become a wuxi actor," he recalls.

Luckily, his voice "came back" and he began playing both roles, which made him stand out among his peers. After graduation in 1999, he was assigned to work with Fujian Peking Opera Company in Fujian province. He joined the National Peking Opera Company in 2013.

Before he turned 25, Tian had won almost all the top national honors in theater, including the Plum Performance Award and the Wenhua Award. He says he has witnessed the ups and downs of Peking Opera, from empty theaters to shows that sold out. "It is said that Peking Opera upholds the essence of Chinese culture. This is true because it is an art that integrates traditions, history and literature."

In July, Tian became the vice-president of the National Peking Opera Company. He rehearses daily from 7 am and sometimes, he walks into his office by 9 am, in a suit and a tie. "It is a new and different role for me. I am still adapting," he says.

Tian doesn't ever want to give up acting. In October, he will play the lead in the Peking Opera classic Qilin Mountain, which will have several martial art scenes. The opera is being revived after 40 years and Tian has been rehearsing his role for months.

"To work hard for something that you truly love is a great feeling," he says.

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