Peking Opera struggles to preserve tradition of male actors playing female parts

By Huang Tingting Source:Global Times Published: 2016/8/17 18:13:39 Last Updated: 2016/8/18 11:37:56


 Hu Wen'ge prepares for a Peking Opera performance. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Mei Lanfang poses as Lady Yang from The Drunken Beauty in 1955. Photo: IC

Recognized as the nandan (a man who plays female roles) heir to the Mei-school of Peking Opera, Hu Wen'ge has had a full schedule ever since his master Mei Baojiu, the youngest son of the world-renowned Peking Opera legend Mei Lanfang and also a Peking Opera master in his own right, passed away at age 82 in April.

While being known as "the only Mei-school disciple to inherit the art directly from Mei Baojiu" is impressive, the 49-year-old artist sees connection to Mei more as a responsibility to prevent the art form from dying out without anyone noticing.

Although nandan once garnering global popularity after Mei Lanfang's 1930 tour to the US, many believe that it will never again regain the glory days of the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Ever since the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) when nandan performances were banned, the art has been struggling to survive, primarily due to "a lack of young talent" at a time when the older generation is getting too old to perform, according to Hu.

"My master kept telling me to make sure the line continues," Hu told the Global Times, while he was taking a short break during a rehearsal. The dark circles under his eyes indicated his fatigue as his mobile phone kept beeping and flashing on and off from time to time as it sat on a nearby desk during our interview.

"I mean, yes, as heir I am getting plenty of attention from the media and support from government agencies," Hu said.

"But nandan artists as a group have received little attention, both from authorities and society."

Time-honored beauty

Even those who know little about traditional Chinese opera can easily see the beauty of the art form the moment performers take the stage.

"His make-up, the overlay of carmines and darker tones, is the most beautiful I have ever seen in a theater," wrote US playwright Stark Young in The New Republic after watching Mei's performance at the National Theater (today known as the Nederlander Theater) in New York in 1930.

But its true beauty is not solely about visual aesthetics.

"For veteran artists, even their performances sans make-up can be just as enthralling as full on stage performances," Mei Lanfang wrote in his 1958 memoir Reflections on My Stage Life.

It's truly stunning to watch a nandan performance convey a woman's unspoken feelings so vividly simply with their eyes and elegant hand movements. Things are even more amazing when you factor in the falsetto singing voice and acrobatics that require years of training.

The core of the art is not about how well a man can imitate the way a woman looks, be it by wearing fake breasts or through over-exaggerated feminine gestures such as walking with swayed hips.

It is about "being healthy," Hu said in a previous interview with China Central TV, which means "portraying female characters in a natural way."

It also means "being beautiful," Mei Lanfang repeatedly mentioned in Reflections on My Stage Life.

Hu feels this beauty is universal.

"And I can sense their response," Hu said, when talking about his 2014 international tour, which celebrated the 120th anniversary of Mei Lanfang's birth.

"When I was performing The Drunken Beauty in the US, I heard someone 'woo' out loud as I played a furious Lady Yang who had just been informed that the Emperor was not coming and turned my back to the crowd with a flip of my sleeves. I knew then and there they understood what I was trying to convey."

Legacy and innovation

"Unlike us, Japan has done well in protecting Kabuki theater," said Hu. "We, too, need government support to protect traditional theater as nandan is rarely seen on national stages."

There are some who point out that the decline of nandan roles is just nature taking its course. Unlike the past when women were strictly confined to home, women are now allowed or even encouraged to play females roles in Peking Opera.

"I know the times are changing. All we want is to carry on the legacy," Hu said.

One of the other reasons it's hard to attract talent is that not every nandan performer gets the chance to make it into the big time - only a few lucky ones can become jue'er, the most celebrated stars in Peking Opera circles.

The odds are, in Hu's opinion, "one in a hundred," while only an estimated one-third of opera majors in theater colleges end up becoming Peking Opera performers at all.

There are other roadblocks as well.

"Young men are either uninterested in this art or lacking the voice for it. Of those who do choose to go into Chinese Opera, only a few choose nandan as a career," said Hu.

There are men who have written passionate letters to Hu claiming that they wanted to learn the art, but "systematic training and tradition, these are more valued in Peking Opera circles than mere impulse," Hu said.

Hu's troupe has been working hard to arouse public interest in nandan roles. In 2015, Hu joined New Opera Show, a Tianjin TV reality show, during which he wowed the audience with a mixed pop-theater performance in collaboration with young Chinese pop group M.I.C.

"Times are changing. To arouse public awareness, we also need to utilize new media, give lectures, hold workshops and collaborate with famous artists, like when I worked with renowned pop singer Wakin Chau.

"But, at the end of the day this is just marketing, " Hu said when asked if this meant that traditional opera was going to change as well.

"When we perform in theaters, we strictly follow tradition."

Newspaper headline: Endangered Elegance

Posted in: Theater

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