Global Times: Chinese classic operas can be great hits again

BEIJING, Dec. 5, 2023 /PRNewswire/ — While traditional cultural art forms presumably tend to struggle in resonating with younger generations, China’s latest Yueju Opera production, New Dragon Gate Inn performed by Xiao Bai Hua, one of the most remarkable Yueju Opera troupes from East China’s Zhejiang Province, has emerged as a phenomenal hit. The innovative adaptation has not only rejuvenated a traditional art form that definitely deserves more attention, but has also enthralled younger audiences who are usually not opera-goers. 

Through her cross-dressed role as the eunuch Jia Ting, nicknamed the “Jade-faced Young Lord,” 31-year-old female performer Chen Lijun has suddenly rose to fame on social media. Her gorgeous appearance, elegant air and skillful performance, combined with the irresistible chemistry between Chen and her partner played by Li Yunxiao, have even sparked a Yueju Opera fever across the internet.

A livestream of the opera in August attracted millions of viewers and sparked heated discussions online, earning over 14,000 comments. Clips of Chen and Li’s performances, such as a scene where Chen lifts and spins Li with one hand, went viral on various social media platforms.

According to domestic media reports, when tickets for the December performances of New Dragon Gate Inn officially went on sale in mid-November, the three performances featuring the duo sold out almost within seconds while the other 14 performances by other cast members sold out within two minutes. Moreover, on second-hand trading platforms, the price of tickets skyrocketed to even 6,666 yuan ($942) from the original price of 399 yuan.  

As a major school of traditional Chinese opera, Yueju Opera originated in Shengzhou county in Shaoxing, Zhejiang Province. Compared to other schools of traditional opera in China, it is relatively young, dating back to 1852. Similar to Peking Opera, Yueju Opera has a unique form of storytelling that combines classical singing, dancing and acting into one. 

Chen is not the only case of cross-gender performance. Most Yueju Opera performers are women, with even the male parts traditionally played by women, giving the opera a distinctively feminine style. The performance is characterized by a soft, gentle style of singing and graceful movements. 

Yet, like many classical art forms, Yueju Opera has faced dwindling interest from younger audiences, until the groundbreaking New Dragon Gate Inn broke the spell. 

Different from previous Yueju Opera performances, the novelty of New Dragon Gate Inn is reflected in several aspects. First, it features an immersive experience. A bit like Sleep No More, where the theater has been turned into an inn filled with secret passages, integrating the stage and the audience seats. It redefines the viewers’ role in storytelling. The audience can interact with the actors and fully engage in scenes, participate in the exploration and progression of the plot, creating a novel and interesting experience that resonates with those in attendance. 

As Chen told media, “The concept of the stage seems to disappear. So does the distance between performers and the audience. The audience and I are all part of the performance.”

With the entire creative team mainly composed of relatively young crew members, including a post-1985 director, a post-1995 playwright, a post-1990 stage designer, and a group of young actors, the opera explores ways of expression that align with the development of the times and the aesthetics of contemporary young audiences. They give their attention to each detail in the story, costume and makeup, the stage lighting and stage design to make everything more relatable and appealing to younger audiences. Through this, they managed to broaden their audience and increase their cultural influence, creating new development opportunities for Yueju Opera. 

In addition to the bold and innovative adaptation, the marketing approach has also been a new experiment that has turned out successful. 

“New Dragon Gate Inn uses short video platforms to provide barrier-free online viewing in a way that resonates with young people,” said Wang Binmei, director of the Xiao Bai Hua troupe.

The success of New Dragon Gate Inn signals a promising future for other traditional Chinese art forms. It exemplifies how innovation, when grounded in respect for tradition, can open new horizons. This approach preserves the art form.

But at the core of its success is the distinct aesthetics and charm of traditional Chinese culture and the persistence of its committed guardians, the unwavering policy support of governments and organizations across the nation. 

Mao Weitao, a famous Yueju Opera artist and former head of Xiao Bai Hua, is the performance director of the opera. She noted that Chen has dedicated a great deal of time to practicing Yueju Opera. Chen herself also acknowledged that there was a time that she felt it was very hard to go on, but she never thought about giving up.   

“Opera is engraved in the DNA of the Chinese people. After a small stone is cast, the DNA awakens,” said Chen.

With New Dragon Gate Inn being a shining example of how cultural heritage can be both preserved and revitalized, we look forward to more Chinese traditional art forms seeking innovation and vitality, so they may continue to enchant and inspire generations to come.

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SOURCE Global Times