Peking Opera Troupe adapts to the times with a Western classic

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Peking Opera Troupe adapts to the times with a Western classic

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Prince Zi Dan, left, talks to King Bo in this still from the Shanghai Peking Opera Troupe’s production of “The Revenge of Prince Zi Dan.” Provided by the Edinburgh International Festival


Under the umbrella of “West Meets East,” this year’s Edinburgh International Festival brought together some of the best groups from China, Korea, Vietnam, India and Indonesia in performances that reflect a vibrant cross-cultural exchange.

Many of the productions from Asia showcased traditional art forms mixed with Western ones in works that either borrowed from Western classics or were modified for festivalgoers in the Scottish capital.

Among the works that attracted attention during the festival was the Shanghai Peking Opera Troupe’s “The Revenge of Prince Zi Dan,” which draws on the traditional opera format and is based on Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” The work was presented in Edinburgh Aug. 19-21.

The British newspaper The Guardian said that “though this is a show that defies all Western theatrical traditions, its strangeness becomes compelling” in “an evening that makes you sit up, look and listen afresh at a familiar story.”

The troupe was founded in 1955 after a merger of the Eastern China Experimental Theatre and the People’s Peking Opera Troupe and is dedicated to preserving the original art form while also incorporating modern influences.

Peking opera, also known as jingju, originated in Beijing during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). It was originally created as an entertainment for the court and performed in open-air theaters but was later shown to the public. During the Cultural Revolution, it was used as propaganda for the Communist Party. And in the modern era, the opera changed again to include new elements in order to compete with more modern art forms and shorter attention spans.

Traditionally, Peking opera features singing, acting, mime and acrobatics and is characterized by symbolism and highly stylized movement. It is widely loved by the older generation, but the companies that perform it today are struggling to compete with a society more interested in pop culture than traditional art forms.

Sun Chongliang, the manager of the Shanghai Peking Opera Troupe, discussed the troupe’s strategies for enticing audiences into the theater while still maintaining the fundamental elements of the opera in an e-mail interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily.

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A still from the Shanghai Peking Opera Troupe’s production of “The Women Generals of the Yang’s,” which was presented from Aug. 31 to Sept. 1 at the Shanghai Grand Theater. Provided by the Shanghai Peking Opera Troupe


Q. Many people are unfamiliar with Peking opera. What are some key elements of the genre?

A. Peking opera is a massive system of art with lots of elements. As it takes about seven to eight years for an actor to train for a role, it is extremely hard to explain the content at first. However, I think it can be described as singing, acting and fighting as well as hand, eye and body movement. These elements might make the genre seem simple, but there is rich meaning behind each one. Take “singing,” for example. It means everything vocal in Peking opera, from melody to rhythm. And different roles require different singing styles.

The makeup used is Peking opera is also very distinctive. What is the reason for this?

Peking opera reflects what we consider classical beauty. It might not be realistic, but we use the white base almost like a blank canvas - giving performers space to apply makeup that is appropriate to their character.

The staging is very minimal compared to Western opera. Why is that?

Peking opera doesn’t use a different set for each scene. Instead, we rely on performers’ facial expressions and movements to express the setting. This leaves the stage free, which might feel sparse, but we prefer to think of it as refined.

Our use of symbolism combined with the simple setting comprise a system of language for the stage, which allows us to feature the talents of the performers. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Peking opera is an art that highlights actors.

When I saw a Peking opera production in China about a decade ago, I remember the voices of the performers were much more high-pitched than the voices of the performers in “Zi Dan.” Did you modernize the production for Western audiences?

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Chen Yu plays the role of Queen Jiang Rong in the Shanghai Peking Opera’s production of “The Revenge of Prince Zi Dan” in this photo from the Edinburgh International Festival, where the work was presented earlier this month. Provided by the Edinburgh International Festival

“The Revenge of Prince Zi Dan” is not a toned-down version of Peking opera. On the contrary, it uses many traditional elements of Peking opera. The singing, music and staging all belong to traditional Peking opera.

Meanwhile, we are very concerned with how a modern audience hears the music and did research on the differences in the aural experiences of modern and traditional audiences. We tried to keep the effect of the original sound of Peking opera to avoid the high frequencies caused by the acoustics in modern theaters.

We have performed the same version of the piece in China, and it was appreciated by longtime fans.

How has the troupe been adapting to meet the taste of modern audiences?

Peking opera is a traditional art form. When a traditional art form is performed in a modern society, you are bound to lose some audience members because tastes change as society does. But we are presenting something different from what’s popular these days, and that’s what keeps us competitive. It is unique and has an irreplaceable charm, which is why there are still loyal fans of the genre.

We also strive to inspire actors and improve their ability to present traditional work in a more flexible manner. That doesn’t mean we deviate from tradition, but it is our goal to make better use of traditional art.

How did Shakespeare’s works come to China?

Many modern Chinese dramatists are familiar with Shakespeare. Chinese people became aware of his work in the middle of the 19th century, with the development of cultural communication between East and West. At the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of 20th, Chinese scholars started mentioning Shakespeare in their works and translations. Since 1921, when Chinese dramatist Tian Han translated “Hamlet,” many others have translated Shakespeare’s works for Chinese readers.

In the later-20th century, courses on Shakespeare’s plays began appearing in colleges in China, especially schools of drama.

When did these literary works begin to be performed?

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Sun Chongliang

In 1889 and 1902, students in Shanghai began performing Shakespeare’s plays, including “The Merchant of Venice,” in English. Later, Chinese versions of Shakespeare’s plays began to appear often. In the later-20th century, theaters started presenting Shakespeare’s plays.

The first Shakespeare Theatre Festival was held in China in 1986, with 28 groups presenting Shakespearean plays. The festival made Shakespearean works more widely known throughout China.

For Chinese audiences, Shakespeare is equivalent to Tang Xianzu of the Ming Dynasty, who is regarded as the most famous dramatist in Chinese history. Both are great dramatists, not only because they lived in the same century but also because of the charm of their works. I think the emotion conveyed in their works is shared by everyone.

What is the best way to appreciate Peking opera?

The best way is to learn what the performers’ movements mean. The more you learn the more you will appreciate the art form as a whole. It’s a process. Many fans of Peking opera come to appreciate it after having experienced it growing up. Once they like it, they can’t give it up.

What are the troupe’s plans for the future?

In the short term, I hope we can perform “The Revenge of Prince Zi Dan” at Shakespeare’s Globe. And in the long run, we are going to cultivate more talented actors and develop a wider variety of traditional plays in order to become the best troupe both in terms of [content and performance].


By Lee Sun-min [summerlee@joongang.co.kr]

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