Home> Media Center>Updates

Shaoxing Opera's modern twist wows youth

By Gui Qian| China Daily| Updated: November 29, 2023 L M S


The stage set of New Dragon Gate Inn, the latest Shaoxing Opera performed by Zhejiang Xiaobaihua, one of China's most remarkable Shaoxing Opera troupes. [Photo/China Daily]

The groundbreaking Shaoxing Opera adaptation, New Dragon Gate Inn, captivates a new generation and revitalizes the ancient art form for contemporary lifestyles, Gui Qian reports.

In a specially designed studio theater in Hangzhou, East China's Zhejiang province, a captivating realm of jianghu, or the martial arts world, is brought to life by a traditional Shaoxing Opera performance. Six actresses, portraying roles from a spirited landlady to skilled swordsmen, spies, and soldiers, deliver a mesmerizing show lasting two hours and 10 minutes.

The audience sits very close to the performers, engaging with them, and immersing themselves in a unique and fascinating viewing experience.

Upon leaving the theater, these audience members feel a sense of satisfaction that prompts them to willingly share short clips of the performance online, promoting its allure.

This has been the scene for the past few months with the environmental-style production, New Dragon Gate Inn, performed by Zhejiang Xiaobaihua, one of China's most remarkable Shaoxing Opera troupes.

Adapted from the 1992 classic martial arts film of the same name, the Shaoxing Opera presentation showcases spectacular artistic prowess, successfully capturing the interest of a younger audience by blending traditional Chinese opera with modern theater models and dramatic concepts.

As the play gains popularity, Chen Lijun, who plays the important supporting role of Jia Ting, has become a social media sensation. Nicknamed the "Jade-faced Man", Jia's stunningly handsome appearance and elegant yet unrestrained charm has got more attention.

In her cross-gender acting, Chen seamlessly engages with her co-stars. For example, she effortlessly spins the landlady around with just one arm.

Chen skillfully cultivates a compelling chemistry, bringing out the character's appeal through nuanced gestures, warm smiles, and poised postures.

The fragmented content of Chen's performance has generated many streams and clicks, leading to high demand for show tickets, especially among young audiences. "Initially, most of the audience were regular opera viewers. But gradually, more nontraditional theatergoers, many of them young people, began attending. Now, the ticket competition has become fierce and only those with fast internet access can get them," Chen joked.

A report by Xinhua News Agency states that Generation Z makes up 74 percent of consumers of guochao goods, or China-chic goods, last year. As a cultural product, New Dragon Gate Inn has successfully won the hearts of the young generation due to the contemporary nature of the show, according to Chen.

"From the content to the spirit, the forms to the aesthetics, the play echoes what young people like, worry about, and are concerned with nowadays," she said.

Traditional Shaoxing Opera often draws inspiration from ancient scripts and folk legends, narrating tales of talented scholars and beautiful ladies. However, New Dragon Gate Inn opts for a story based on a film with a significant fan base, catering to a younger audience and adapting it to better suit the current context and the Shaoxing Opera genre itself.

For instance, the character Jia Ting transforms from an elderly figure in the movie into a charming young man, aligning more with the characteristics of the kunsheng role, or that of a female actor who takes a reversed role, in Shaoxing Opera. The play also provides Jia with more scenes and struggles.

"He faces the dilemma of balancing loyalty and righteousness, undergoing inner turmoil: Should I choose worldly success or follow my inner convictions? What is hindering me from becoming my true self? This not only reflects Jia's introspection but also addresses questions that many young people contemplate at present," Chen explained.

Simultaneously, the model of environmental performance has changed the relationship between the audience and the performance.

Unlike the traditional framed stage, the theater is designed as an inn, with the audience becoming guests. They are positioned right next to the actresses and, in some cases, become part of the performance itself.

"This places new demands on our performers," said Xu Yena, who acts in the show as the A cast of Jin Xiangyu, the landlady of the inn. "We need to abandon many of the stylized movements from traditional Shaoxing Opera and learn from drama and film performances, adopting a more natural, authentic, and subtle acting style."

According to Xu, having the audience in closer proximity to the performers allows them to appreciate finer details. The crew has also designed many improvised interactions with the audience, making each performance unique.

"One viewer has even attended our shows consecutively for 40 performances!" Xu said.

Xu also believes the feminine style of Shaoxing Opera itself harmonizes with the aesthetic preferences of many contemporary audiences. As most Shaoxing Opera performers are women, Xiaobaihua is an all-female troupe.

"With the male parts played by women, Shaoxing Opera often brings audiences a fresh and invigorating feeling," Xu said.

As a kunsheng, Chen herself interprets her profession as a combination of the charms of both genders while exuding a mysterious sense of beauty.

"Internet users jokingly say that women understand best what women want to see. I think this is because female actors present an image that corresponds to the idealized male figure in the hearts of women," she said.

As both Xiaobaihua and Japan's renowned Takarazuka Revue are all-female troupes, some internet users have drawn parallels between the two, likening Chen to "China's Amami Yuki", a former acclaimed male-role actress in the Japanese troupe.

In response, Chen said, "All good performances are worth learning from. Our two troupes share many similarities, but there are also fundamental differences, rooted in the cultural heritage of our respective theatrical traditions."

By fully leveraging the strengths of Shaoxing Opera and integrating other arts, Chen explained, New Dragon Gate Inn has successfully drawn many nontraditional theatergoers, particularly young people. "Such innovation is gratifying, and seeking novelty and change has always been what Shaoxing Opera and the Xiaobaihua troupe have been doing," Chen said.

"Shaoxing Opera once borrowed and learned from Peking Opera and Kunqu Opera. Today, we draw inspiration from a broader range of artistic forms and expression techniques," she added.

According to Xu, as early as 2016, Xiaobaihua produced Coriolanus and Du Liniang, combining Shakespeare's Coriolanus with The Peony Pavilion by the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) playwright Tang Xianzu to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the deaths of the two great playwrights. In September, the troupe also launched a tourism version of The Butterfly Lovers, the famous Chinese love legend.

Xu cited the words of Mao Weitao, the former head of Xiaobaihua and a famed Shaoxing Opera artist, stating that there are three things to do when one comes to Hangzhou: visit the West Lake, drink Longjing tea, and watch the performances of Xiaobaihua.

"This is with the hope that operas can become a lifestyle," Xu said.

She hails from Shaoxing and fondly recalls listening to Shaoxing Opera while strolling across bridges and playing in school yards during her childhood. "At that time, almost everyone could sing a few lines," Xu said. "Today, we are putting in great efforts to make Shaoxing Opera more accessible and relatable to the younger generation. This is a positive step in the revival of this ancient art."

Contact the writer at guiqian@i21st.cn