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16 May 2022, 16:03

Opera troupes find ways to survive pandemic

Photo: chinadaily.com.cn
Photo: chinadaily.com.cn

BEIJING, 16 May (BelTA - China Daily). - For three decades, Huangmeixi Opera singer Liu Lihua has performed at locations ranging from outdoor areas in small villages to grand theaters in big cities.

After the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, Liu, head of Huangmeixi Opera Troupe of Huaining county, Anhui province, started to hold online meetings to discuss ways to keep theater staff members and artists busy.

The theater company typically stages about 120 shows at villages and schools in Huaining each year and also performs in nearby cities. The sudden halt to the regular performance schedule made Liu pause to consider the troupe's future, before she realized that online platforms could provide a stage for the ensemble.

Since January, Liu's troupe, which has a history of 66 years, has staged livestreaming performances nearly every night. From 7:30 pm to 10:30 pm, the artists, mainly young people, either wearing makeup and costumes or their everyday clothes, perform classic and popular Huangmeixi Opera pieces on the Douyin short-video platform, where they also share their stories about learning the ancient art form and showcase their daily practice sessions.

The performers, who quickly attracted a large fan base, now have nearly 700,000 followers on Douyin. Much to their surprise, an estimated 10,000 viewers log on every night to watch their shows. The viewers are from areas where Huangmeixi Opera is popular, such as Anhui and Hubei provinces, and also from overseas.

Liu said: "I read messages left by the viewers during the livestreaming broadcasts. This is a totally new way of interacting with audiences." She added that in the theater, her audiences chiefly comprised seniors, but the livestreaming shows are mainly watched by young people.

One fan posted: "I had never listened to Huangmeixi Opera, and had no idea that the songs were so beautiful. I am 25 years old and I really enjoy the songs. This is definitely not an art form for older people."

Performing virtual shows has become an important new strategy for the company as it fights for survival due to canceled rehearsals and performances, Liu said.

Unlike some companies that offer livestreaming content from their previous shows, performers from Huangmeixi Opera Troupe of Huaining county sing in different ways.

For example, they perform in their dressing rooms, with one person singing a song or one line of the lyrics and the next performer singing a new song starting with the last word the previous person sang. They also perform in a meeting room, with male and female singers sitting face to face, performing alternately.

Liu said: "There is no grand stage, or even costumes or makeup. They just sing the songs. The atmosphere is relaxing and these young performers are of a similar age to the viewers. I guess this is why people love watching the performances."

For Liu, Huangmeixi Opera is as fun and intriguing as any contemporary art form that young people enjoy, such as pop music and movies.

Born in Anqing city, Huaining, Liu grew up listening to and watching Huangmeixi Opera, as her family members, including her grandfather and mother, are big fans of the old art form.

Huangmeixi is one of the major traditional operatic forms in China, along with Peking, Yueju and Kunqu operas. Originally sung by women picking tea, Huangmeixi Opera is also known as caichaxi (tea-picking opera).

Originating in Anqing, Huangmeixi Opera became popular in nearby regions, including Hubei and Jiangxi provinces, during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). In 2006, it was included on the first national intangible cultural heritage list.

"I particularly remember my mother singing one Huangmeixi Opera piece for me. It was my favorite bedtime song when I was a child," Liu said.

The song, Twelve-Month Melody of Meng Jiangnyu, is based on the legend of Meng, whose husband, a scholar named Wan Xiliang, like millions of other people, was taken away to work in the country.

Forced to leave their homes, these people were assigned to build the Great Wall. Nothing was heard from Wan after he was taken away, and Meng missed him terribly as she stayed home counting the days, months and seasons since she last saw him.

She made a winter coat for Wan and set off to look for him. After experiencing numerous hardships, she arrived at the Great Wall, only to find that he had died. Meng was unconsolable, patting the wall as she wept. Suddenly, a gust of wind blew and a large area of the wall collapsed.

Liu said: "I kept asking my mother questions about Meng, and the beautiful songs linger in my head. Now, Twelve-Month Melody of Meng Jiangnyu is one of the most popular songs on our livestreaming shows."

She added that during the 1970s, her village often screened movies outdoors in the evenings. She especially loved watching one of the films, Tian Xian Pei, or The Marriage of The Fairy Princess, which features Huangmeixi Opera actress Yan Fengying. Premiered in 1956, the plot centers on a love story between Seventh Fairy, the youngest daughter of the emperor in heaven, and a young man, Dong Yong.

"The songs in the movie are as enchanting as the story itself. I couldn't help learning to sing them," Liu said.

Hard times

As a middle school student, Liu started to learn Huangmeixi Opera at a local art school. She joined Huangmeixi Opera Troupe of Huaining county after she graduated in 1991.

However, at that time, the company was struggling to survive because the art form was in decline. Liu often spent one to two months touring with the troupe to perform at villages in Anhui. She was paid about 90 yuan in the first month, but many performers left because of the low wages.

"Conditions for artists with the troupe were poor. On tour, we brought our own bedding. Most of the time, we performed on informal stages, but I never considered leaving, because being a Huangmeixi Opera actress was my dream and the only thing I wanted to do," Liu said.

In 2008, 17 years after Liu became a Huangmeixi Opera performer, she had the opportunity to play the leading role in an original production titled Women of Duxiu Mountain, which premiered at the annual Anqing Huangmeixi Opera Festival in 2009 and won the top award. A year later, the production won Liu the best acting award at the China Theater Festival.

Later, the production was introduced to more audiences after being screened on CCTV's traditional opera channel, making Liu a star Huangmeixi Opera performer.

In 2010, when Liu became head of Huangmeixi Opera Troupe of Huaining county, the first thing she did was to recruit young talent.

One of the young performers Liu hired is Pan Hongxing, who was 24 at the time. Born in Huaining county, Pan also grew up listening to Huangmeixi Opera songs. However, he dreamed of becoming a pop star because he is a big fan of such music and is a good singer.

"I wanted to learn singing, so when the Huaining county troupe came to my middle school to recruit new students, I applied. I had no idea I was going to learn this art form," said Pan, now 36.

It only took him a year to learn to sing Huangmeixi Opera pieces, and thanks to his talent, Pan was chosen to perform in Singapore.

"The more I learn about it, the better I understand the ancient art form and the deeper I fall in love with it," Pan said, adding that in his home area, Huaining county, people sing Huangmeixi Opera in places such as parks, squares and on river banks as a form of entertainment.

Sense of community

When the pandemic emerged in 2020, Pan was among the troupe's young performers who launched an online streaming channel on Douyin. As a result, when Liu had the idea of livestreaming shows, she immediately thought of Pan.

Pan said: "There are 40 actors and actresses in the company, with most of them born after 1990. Livestreaming is nothing new to us because we watch different kinds of shows on social media platforms.

"When we started, we prepared programs, assigned different jobs to our performers, and divided them into groups, taking turns every night to give livestreaming shows. We are always looking for new ways to engage with younger audiences, and we are now creating a new sense of community online."

Video platforms such as Douyin have led to traditional Chinese opera performers becoming celebrities.

Such operas have proved popular on Douyin, and according to a report released by the company recently, 231 types of traditional Chinese opera are being livestreamed on the platform. These performances range from genres with a large fan base, such as Peking Opera and Kunqu Opera, to those that appeal to a minority, such as Nuo, Luju and Huju operas.

Last year, Douyin staged more than 800,000 livestreaming shows by traditional Chinese opera artists, attracting a total of more than 2.5 billion viewers.

In addition to popularizing those old art forms, the Douyin report said livestreaming provides extra income for artists.

On April 14, Douyin launched a project to help more traditional Chinese opera performers find virtual stages on the platform. It will offer financial support to such troupes.

Building a brand

Han Shangyou, vice-president of Douyin, said an average of 3,200 viewers watched each livestreamed traditional Chinese opera shown on the platform last year.

"This means that each show attracted the same number of people as the capacity of a medium-sized theater," Han said.

"With easy access to social media platforms, artists today can build a brand and a following," he added.

Li Shujian, head of the Yuju Opera Troupe in Henan province, said: "Due to the pandemic, many traditional Chinese opera troupes now have fewer shows to perform. We don't want to see our artists unemployed. Social media platforms are a great support for them, both as a way to connect with audiences and as a way to earn additional income."

A Yuju Opera actor for four decades, Li has livestreamed shows on Douyin since 2020 with artists from his troupe. Yuju Opera originated and thrived in Henan in the late Ming (1368-1644) and early Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.

Li said: "I've performed more than 100 shows annually for 45 years. Let's say we have audiences of 2,000 in theaters and that about 10 million people have watched our shows in these four decades. However, within two months we could reach 200 million people through livestreaming shows. Isn't this amazing?"

He added that he has witnessed the fluctuating fortunes of Yuju Opera and many other traditional types of Chinese opera. In the 1990s, such operas experienced hard times, with many troupes having no audiences, and young people unwilling to learn the ancient art forms.

"Thanks to the government, we have survived with financial and policy support. We have overcome many challenges. Now, despite the fact that the pandemic has heavily affected the performing arts scene, we will overcome this as well," Li said.

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