Directly from Peking Opera classic "Farewell My Concubine," the Yueju Opera version, "Yu Ji the Beauty," will debut this weekend ¡ª a highlight of the celebration of the 100th anniversary of Yueju Opera, writes Fan Meijing.
In 1922 when Peking Opera classic "Ba Wang Bie Ji" ("Farewell My Concubine") premiered in Beijing, Mei Lanfang (1894-1961) - the most outstanding exponent of Peking Opera - played a stunning Yu Ji, a beloved concubine of Xiang Yu (232-202 BC), who overthrew the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) and later committed suicide after being defeated by Liu Bang (256-195 BC), founder of the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-24 AD).
In the play, Mei sang: "My Lord (Xiang) is stubborn by nature. Never does he accept sincere advice. What I fear is that the Great Conqueror of Chu could be won over, letting down his decades-long fame as an undefeated hero."
These lines are the play's distillate and have recently been developed into a brand-new Yueju Opera story "Yu Meiren" ("Yu Ji the Beauty"), which will debut this weekend in Shanghai as part of the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Yueju Opera.
It is the first time for the story of Yu and Xiang to be adapted into Yueju Opera, despite it appearing in various stage versions such as the Chuanju Opera and dance.
"It's a courageous adventure for us, since generally Yueju is not accomplished in reflecting big historic events like this one - Liu and Xiang fought to reign the country," says Shan Yangping, leading actress of Shanghai Yueju Opera House who will play Yu. "We try to interweave into the heroic tragedy of Xiang a beautiful sad love story."
Originating in Zhejiang Province with only narration and singing but no accompaniment, Yueju has developed and is now one of the most popular Chinese traditional theaters in the region south of the Yangtze River.
With almost all of its performers female, Yueju Opera is excellent at expressing emotions in a delicate manner. The tunes are pure, sweet and agreeable, containing rich regional folk flavors, and the performances are vivid and tender.
Concentrating on the concubine
Classical Yueju Opera plays include love stories, such as "Hong Lou Meng" ("A Dream of Red Mansions"), arguably China's greatest literary masterpiece written by Cao Xueqin (1715-63), and "Xi Xiang Ji" ("West Chamber Romance"). However, "Farewell" which displays the epic war between Liu and Xiang has yet to be considered suitable for Yueju Opera.
"Through Yu's eyes, we see the war and her heart to feel its bitterness," Shan says. "We've made bold innovations. My Yu Ji, different from most other Yueju Opera heroines who are weak and vulnerable, is graceful and highly spirited."
To achieve this, she has been training herself to sing more powerfully and make bigger movements. "To walk away from regularity isn't that easy. Yu Ji exhausts me. The only comfort is that I eat a lot but still lose weight," she jokes.
Instead of starring a male performer as Xiang, "Yu Meiren" insists on choosing a woman to play the ultimately masculine character.
"I'm the first xiao sheng (young male) specialist to play Xiang in traditional theater," says Wu Fenghua, vice director of Zhejiang's Shaoxing Little Hundred Flower Yueju Opera Troupe. "To display the conqueror's formidable strength and personality, I borrow the performing skills from lao sheng (old male) profession in Yueju and even hua lian (forceful character with a painted-face) from Peking Opera."
Also this time, the originally simple storyline is largely developed. Relations between different characters are more complicated, and the love between husband and wife, brother and sister, as well as their conflicts are illustrated through careful storytelling.
"The play in Peking Opera focuses on displaying the performer's personal artistic skill and charm, whereas in Yueju, it attracts the audience through enriched plots and upgraded stage set," says Wu Ying, vice director of China Mei Lanfang Cultural and Artistic Research Center. "I watched the rehearsal and traced interesting elements from modern lives."
In one scene Yu and Xiang drink from big jars filled with white wine, exchanging a final farewell. "Ancient Chinese beauties drank from small cups only, so this is really bold and imaginative," Wu smiles. "As for the music, tunes by piano freshen our 'old' ears."
He says that the adaptation can represent a big breakthrough for Yueju. "More significant is that we've seen through this attempt a better way of marketing our traditional cultures - Yueju borrows the stories and skills of Peking Opera so that it may also seize Peking Opera lovers' heart, and vice versa," he says. "Next time we will stage 'Ba Wang Bie Ji' in Yueju, Peking Opera and dance all together. One ticket for the three consecutive shows could be 2,000 yuan (US$246.9). I believe it will be very popular."
Date: March 25-26, 7:15pm
Venue: Shanghai Grand Theater, 300 People's Ave
Tickets: 100-580 yuan
Tel: 6431-6728, 6437-1140