Huangmei Melody: operas can also be in vogue
The Anqing Zaifen Huangmei Troupe is situated in the city of Anqing, eastern China’s Anhui Province. [Photo: Chinaplus/Yin Xiuqi]
China is home to a great variety of operas due to its long history and vast territory. Of them, Huangmei Opera stands out as one of five major operas in the country.
With a trace of rusticity, the opera, which is also called Huangmei Melody, integrates sweet folk-tunes and enchanting folklore from eastern China to make a professional theatrical art.
In its some 200 years of history, it’s been popular among ordinary residents living in the countryside and small towns of both eastern and southern China.
Building on this long tradition and fan base, a group of Huangmei performers and artists have created a new opera brand called “Zaifen Huangmei” named after the celebrated artist Han Zaifen.
But what exactly is the new opera brand? And how did it come into being?
One early spring day, I arrived in the city of Anqing after about seven hours on a high-speed train from Beijing. I came to meet a group of artists who have been at the forefront of reforming and promoting a traditional theatrical art called Huangmei Opera.
The Huangmei opera performers’ new coach--Tian Mansha(right) is a well-established expert in both traditional and modern dramas. [Photo: Chinaplus/Yin Xiuqi]
This is a daily routine of rehearsals at the Anqing Zaifen Huangmei Troupe. But today’s rehearsal is a little bit different.
The performers’ new coach, Tian Mansha, is a well-established expert in both traditional and modern dramas. Tian was invited to stay with the troupe for a short time to help improve the Huangmei performers’ artistic skills.
“I came here because of Han Zaifen. I think her artistic philosophy, ideals and management all stand out among the many artistic troupes across China. This troupe has a lot of experience, which can be learnt by others. I accepted the invitation to coach the performers in this troupe because I share the artistic philosophy and ideals of Han Zaifen.”
In fact, Han Zaifen is the President of the Anqing Zaifen Huangmei Troupe, which is named after her. Asking Tian to coach the troupe was part of the president’s long-term efforts to innovate and promote Huangmei Opera.
Before taking over the troupe, the 51-year-old had a successful, long-standing career both on stage and screen. Her artistic philosophy and emphasis on innovating Huangmei Opera are rooted in her rich experience as a performer.
But how did this well-established artist first get involved in opera?
Han Zaifen was born in the city of Qianshan, which is under the jurisdiction of Anqing—the most famous center of Huangmei Opera.
Han owes her natural affinity with opera to this geographical and cultural background.
“First I lived in the hometown of Huangmei Opera. Second, my mother was also a Huangmei Opera performer. My childhood home was just opposite a Huangmei Opera troupe. So I have been living in an atmosphere of this opera since I was a child, and naturally developed a special feeling for this art.”
Yet the road from her natural affinity to a professional career was not necessarily pre-destined.
When Han was in the fourth grade of primary school, a troupe from Anqing came to Qianshan to scout for upcoming opera singers. Han just happened to go with a classmate, who wanted to audition.
But instead of her classmate, the recruiters picked out Han and asked her to sing a song. The on-spot audition immediately made the scouts think Han would be great at opera singing.
As a result, in 1978, the then 10-year-old fourth grader became a student at the Anqing Huangmei Opera Troupe. At the time, Huangmei Opera, like other traditional cultures, was beginning a revival after a ten-year gap during the Cultural Revolution.
Han underwent three years of intensive training before playing a major role on stage at the age of 14.
“The first major play I performed on stage was Mochounv. It was a very special opportunity for me. My teacher lost her voice right before she went on stage. Tickets for the play had been sold. We couldn’t cancel the performance. So in these particular circumstances I said ‘I can do it!’”
Han’s move was brave but also reckless – playing the main role in the folklore-inspired Mochounv requires great on-stage skills.
“My teachers were very surprised and worried. ‘Can you really do it?’ they asked with skepticism. You know, I was so brave at the time. I was adamant, replying ‘Yes, I can!’”
But where did the teenage girl’s confidence come from?
Han now recalls that during her years of apprenticeship, every time her teachers performed on stage, she closely watched their performances and kept the lines, the songs, and every move on stage in mind.
Fortunately, her unexpected major debut on stage was a success. More importantly, the seeds of innovation inherent in Han first started to grow.
“My rendition of the play was a little bit different from that of my teacher. There was some innovation in my performance. My teacher later wrote an article about my performance. She especially mentioned my innovation in the performance. This shows that I not only performed it but also thought about it, instead of merely imitating.”
This first success on stage began to elevate Han to stardom amid a booming Huangmei Opera and other cultural products which featured it in the 1980s.
“In 1984, I played in the television edition of Zheng Xiaojiao. This was the first traditional opera-themed TV series in the Chinese mainland. The series was well received. Because of this TV series, I became a household name as a TV opera star.”
Like most of the other traditional Huangmei Opera plays, the story of Zheng Xiaojiao intermingles evil and virtue, romantic love and separation, and finally salvation and happiness for ordinary people in pre-modern China.
Following the popularity of this pioneering TV soap opera, a new trend emerged of making similar Huangmei opera TV series. Many people began flocking to theatres to watch stage performances of the operas besides watching Huangmei-themed TV series.
Han Zaifen made her name in the 1980s after playing in many popular Huangmei opera TV series, including Tianxianpei and Nvfuma. [Photo: courtesy of Anqing Zaifen Huangmei Troupe]
After Zheng Xiaojiao, Han Zaifen starred in many other opera TV series, including Tianxianpei and Nvfuma, to name but two. Tianxianpei literally means the marriage of an earthly man and a goddess, while Nvfuma tells the fictional story of a woman disguised as a man taking imperial exams and becoming the son-in-law of an emperor.
These traditional operas enjoyed a boom of some ten years before entering the hard times of the 1990s. Then, many residents in China turned to modern popular culture and became obsessed with making money as the country’s market-oriented reforms took hold.
Han Zaifen says she understood that innovation was a must if the traditional opera wanted to retain its appeal amid the depression.
“I thought at the time that artistic innovation was urgent. So I suggested that operas could also be in vogue. I was determined to come up with new plays, new forms of stage performance. In this way, we aimed to draw audiences on our own initiative.”
Han’s determination to innovate finally gave birth to Huizhou Women, one of the most successful new plays she has created and presented. Han, then about 30 years old, made considerable changes to the Huangmei art form in the new play, which was launched in 1999.
The play was well received by both ordinary audiences and art critics. Some critics have said that Huizhou Women took Huangmei Opera to a higher level in terms of music, stage design and publicity. Although the show is acclaimed for many of its innovations, its story still features a bygone era in pre-modern China.
Four years later, Han Zaifen presented another new play called Company, this time set in contemporary times.
Company tells the story of a young woman with a Phd degree who quits her job to start her own business. The play draws inspiration from the great number of new businesses emerging with China’s impressive economic expansion in the new century. While praising the entrepreneurial endeavors of the young woman, the play stresses the importance of being honest as a businessperson.
The debut performance in Beijing was a great success, according to Han Zaifen.
“We staged eight performances in a row in one theatre. This created a stir in the traditional opera sector. Our innovation was daring—from the choice of topics to the stage settings. For example, how to reenact, on stage, a scene involving typing on a computer? We faced and successfully solved a great range of new questions.”
In 2005, 37-year-old Han Zaifen took charge of the No.2 Huangmei Troupe of Anqing, which was renamed after the artist. This move was historic, as the Zaifen troupe had become the first performing group in the Chinese mainland named after a famous artist since the late 1970s.
Han explains that adopting the name Zaifen aimed to establish a unique cultural brand for Huangmei Opera and attract more audiences.
But the state of the rebranded troupe was unsatisfactory. Han reveals that most of the troupe’s 60 members had to take part-time jobs to earn extra money to provide for themselves because of their low wages as opera performers.
“After I became president of the troupe, I began thinking that no matter what, the troupe must stage performances and come up with new plays; it must have an income. Without an income, you can’t support the troupe’s members. So in early 2006, I rebranded the play Company. We put on some 10-plus stage performances in a row. From then on, I helped the troupe’s members reestablish their confidence and tried to forge ahead together.”
The 10-plus performances earned the troupe hundreds of thousands of yuan, greatly alleviating its financial difficulties. Seven years later, the Zaifen troupe was reorganized as a company so it could take more advantage of the entertainment sector.
While trying to support her company financially, the performer-turned troupe and company manger began focusing on cultivating both new talents and the Zaifen Huangmei Opera brand.
Forty-year-old Wu Meilian is a backbone performer at the Zaifen company. Wu began her Huangmei Opera career back in 1995 at the height of the art’s depression.
Now with more than 20 years’professional experience, Wu has become an established performer and is contending for this year’s Plum Blossom Prize, China’s top theatrical award.
Wu Meilian(left) rehearsed with Wei Guang on March 19th, 2019. [Photo: Chinaplus/Yin Xiuqi]
I only had the opportunity to pose a question to her during a short break from her morning rehearsal with a much younger performer.
Having received training under Han Zaifen, Wu Meilian says now she’d like to pass down what she has learnt.
“Often we perform with our young members. Young performers need coaching and on-stage experience. Our troupe has a tradition that we should pass down what we have learnt to the next generation. My teachers taught me what they learned. Now it’s my turn to train the much younger members with everything I know.”
It turns out that the younger performer rehearsing with Wu Meilian is 26-year-old Wei Guang. Wei comes from neighboring Hubei province, where his father was a Huangmei opera performer.
Wei has been working hard with the Zaifen troupe for six years with the ultimate aim of becoming a good performer.
“It’s tough during the rehearsals. We have three rehearsals every workday, while in the evening we perform on stage. The atmosphere in our troupe is very good. Many teachers coach us young performers selflessly. I’ll try my best to be a good Huangmei performer.”
Unlike Wei, his teammate Zhang Min has no family background in professional Huangmei Opera.
Coming from the County of Taihu not far from Anqing, Zhang says her family loves listening to and watching Huangmei operas, although they are not professional artists themselves.
Now having worked in the Zaifen troupe for nine years, 30-year-old Zhang says Huangmei opera has more of a grassroots fan base compared with Peking opera.
“I think Huangmei Opera is popular. Old and young people both love it. Compared with Peking Opera, Huangmei is closer to ordinary people’s daily lives and their thinking. So it’s more down to earth and easy to understand and appreciate.”
However, when I randomly ask some young people in a park next to the troupe’s headquarters, the appeal of the opera among the younger generation may not be that upbeat.
“I only listen to pop songs. Huangmei Opera’s rhythms are too traditional and classical.”
“I like Huangmei Opera! But I have no time to listen to it as I’m so busy with my work. ”
When I ask whether her company can make a profit on its own, Han Zaifen gives me an ambiguous answer.
“The traditional opera market is small now. It takes a long time to develop it. There are many factors behind a mature opera market. Only relying on one particular company is not enough. So we face a long and arduous task.”
The Zaifen Huangmei opera company still relies in part on government financial support, like many other traditional cultural organizations in China.
Han adds that as a cultural entity, her company is determined to shoulder the social responsibility of promoting traditional culture instead of just focusing on making profits.
She gives me a set of indicative figures: the Zaifen troupe or company, as it’s also called, has grown from the original 60 members to the current 130. And one in five are young prodigies in their 20s and 30s.
And now, the well-established Zaifen brand of Huangmei Opera is rolling out a new product.
Over the past three years, Han’s company has been working on a new play called Deng Jiaxian.
Deng Jiaxian is a prestigious Chinese scientist. The theme of the play is to show how the scientist selflessly contributed to the nation and science.
The play is expected to debut at the 12th China Art Festival in Shanghai in May. The festival is a state-level national event and held every three years.
Liu Guoping(front) plays the hero of the troupe’s new play Deng Jiaxian. [Photo: Chinaplus/Yin Xiuqi]
Right now, the creation and performing teams of Deng Jiaxian are busy figuring out its final details.
Liu Guoping, who plays the hero of the show, says challenges lie ahead of them.
“Opera is an art of exaggeration. It uses exaggeration to depict a role. For a modern play, there are a lot of difficulties for the performer to depict the role. Without the usual costumes and stage settings, how to express a role requires higher skills from performers. We’re working to nail down all the small details.”
Without the usual traditional costumes and stage settings, will the new play still be a Huangmei opera? Liu’s answer is yes.
“Its rhythm belongs to Huangmei opera. The spoken language we use is Anqing dialect. It’s the forms, such as lighting effects, that diverge from the traditional and familiar Huangmei operas. But the new play will still be a genuine Huangmei opera.”
Liu’s view on innovating traditional opera converges with his boss Han Zaifen and their guest Tian Mansha.
Speaking highly of the innovation, Tian sums up what a genuine artistic creation should be like.
“When we create a new play, the rule is that you must not destroy the way of speaking and the tune of the traditional opera. You can add to it and develop it rather than abandon it. If you abandon these features, the play will not belong to the operatic genre.”
Han Zaifen says that’s exactly what her Zaifen brand of Huangmei opera is working on as they innovate and promote the traditional art.
“The essence of the tradition will be there forever, as long as you don’t intentionally abandon it. The aim of our innovation is to find a new path of development for Huangmei Opera. What I want to stress is that today’s innovation will be tomorrow’s new tradition if it becomes popular among audiences and is passed down.”
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