Relighting the heritage fire

By Xiong Yuqing in Shandong Province Source:Global Times Published: 2015-9-28 18:03:01

The battle to keep traditional local opera alive

Shandong Bangzi actress performs opera Lao Yang Shan on Friday in Heze, Shandong Province.

Students of Weishilu Primary School practice Peking Opera in Ji'nan, Shandong Province. Photos: Xiong Yuqing/GT

Most travelers to Shandong Province probably aren't aware that it is a great place for traditional Chinese opera. Not only is it one of the major centers for Peking Opera, the province also has plenty of unique local operas including Shandong Lu Opera, Liuzi Opera and Shandong Bangzi to name just a few. Even most locals would have a hard time naming them all.

After President Xi Jinping pointed out the need to develop traditional Chinese operas in a speech at a forum on literature and arts held on October 15, 2014, local operas began receiving an increasing amount of government support. 

Starting young

One way people have tried to preserve this traditional art is to start with a younger audience. In 2009, the local Ji'nan government added 15 selections from Peking Operas into textbooks for primary students. According to statistics from a recent official survey, over 10,000 primary school students in Ji'nan could sing at least one or two pieces from a classic Peking Opera. Provincial and city Peking Opera troupes have also started cooperating with primary schools to organize classes that introduce children to the basics of Peking Opera. 

"Our goal wasn't to make them Peking Opera performers. We just hoped they would grow up to become someone who might step into the theaters to see a traditional opera. And maybe they bring their parents or grandparents to the theaters too," Yu Heyong, the director of the Ji'nan Peking Opera Troupe, said.

Local efforts

While major operas such as Peking Opera receive more attention, the country is full of smaller local operas that often get over looked.

The history of local operas in Heze, located in Southwest Shandong Province, can be traced back to 1659. Among the nine types of operas that still exist today, four of them can only be found here in Heze. Heze is also home to six national-level heritage protection centers.

He Xueqin, 49, has studied and performed Liangjiaxian Opera since she was 16. Coming from a farmer family, she became interested in this local opera through the local performances held in her village. As one of only two actresses to play male roles in her troupe, she said that it took her a very long time to learn everything her roles demanded of her.

Though Liangjiaxian is rarely seen outside the region, it is very popular among local seniors.

"When I went to Ji'nan yesterday, some older audience members called out my name. They remembered the character I performed there about 10 years ago," He told the Global Times with pride.

After Xi's comments sparked investment in opera,  He's troupe began receiving government support and she was able to receive steady income.

The government provided her troupe with a mobile stage and encouraged the troupe to travel to towns and villages to perform for local residents.

"We never worry about not having an audience. Wherever we go there are always crowds of people sitting and standing around the stage."

However, He doesn't think that her troupe would survive without government support.

"They watch my shows for free, so they aren't used to paying for performances. Sometimes we hold commercial performances, but that's when we've been hired by some temple for an event."

The next generation

Although local operas are popular among senior audiences, attracting younger generations is still an issue, not only because they need new audiences, but also because they need new blood to carry on the tradition.

Mother to a 19-year-old boy, He told the Global Times that she tried to convince her son to study Liangjiaxian, but her son just wasn't interested.

Similar to He, Shi Jinfeng, a Dapingdiao Opera actress in her 40s, told the Global Times that her child showed no interest in her traditional art.

"He is working in marketing and earns much more than I do," Shi explained that she earns 2,000 yuan ($314) a month, much lower than other jobs in Heze.

While in the past, traditional arts were passed down through families, most of the troupe's new members came from local art schools.

Market rules

While government support has helped local opera experience something of a renaissance, in a way it has also had a negative impact on traditional opera.

According to Zheng Shaohua, the director of the Shandong Peking Opera Troupe, the best way for these traditional arts to survive is to be supported by the market and not through government subsidiaries.

"Last year, many troupes were busy creating new productions so they could join different [government sponsored] competitions. Just like fast food, they would produce a new opera in just 20 days and it would never be shown again after it won a competition. Luckily, many traditional opera troupes are becoming private companies instead of relying on the government, which means they need to figure out how to earn money from commercial performances. Of course they have to live a hard life, but considering the long-term, this is good for the art form."

"If an opera is still performed after 10 years, it's because audiences like it and consider it a classic. However, many audiences can't remember even a single line from many of today's operas, even though they are two hours long. That is what I consider a failure. Art is something that needs to be created slowly. We need to create works that can survive in the market," Zheng told the Global Times.

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