Lead star of Kunqu Opera

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When she was 14, her dance teacher told her she had expressive eyes and an oval face, which were best suited for Kunqu Opera. Shao Tianshuai didn't pay much heed to the compliment until her mother persuaded her to give the opera a try.

Shao was preparing to study Chinese folk dance at Minzu University of China in Beijing when her mother said, "There are many who take up folk dance, but only a few learn Kunqu. You will be different and special."

In 2001, Shao auditioned for the Northern Kunqu Opera Theater in Beijing and came out with flying colors. The theater company is the only professional platform in northern China dedicated to Kunqu, an extant form of Chinese opera with a history of around 600 years.

The opera originated in Kunshan, a county-level city now governed by Suzhou, Jiangsu province, and is performed in the melodic Suzhou dialect. Kunqu, which combines singing, dancing and acting, was inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Culture Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2001.

"This genre of opera was on the verge of decline and the theater only had a dozen performances a year before I auditioned there," says Shao, who was born and raised in Harbin, Northeast China's Heilongjiang province. "However, the UNESCO tag gave the art a fresh lease of life. The opera received government support and garnered the attention of young audiences."

Now, at 36, she is one of the leading actresses of Northern Kunqu Opera Theater and gives nearly 100 performances a year. She is busy preparing for her upcoming role in Escorting Jingniang Home, a classic Kunqu production, first staged by the theater in 1960 and restaged several times.

Shao plays Jingniang, a young woman kidnapped by a group of bandits and rescued by Zhao Kuangyin, the founding emperor of the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Zhao, a righteous young man before he became an emperor, escorted Jingniang hundreds of kilometers until she was safely home. Shao says the story is adapted from folklore about the honesty, integrity and courage of Zhao.

Kunqu Opera, like many traditional Chinese operas, is passed down from one generation to another through singing demonstrations. It takes years to master basic skills, only after which performers can try and build their own styles.

Ten years ago, Shao learned to sing some of the most famous arias of Escorting Jingniang Home from veteran Kunqu actress Hu Jinfang. "My character in the production has to sing several arias. I still recall my lessons and how I practiced the same lines over and over again," she says.

The new version of the play is expansive in style. It is a full two-hour Kunqu Opera piece against the original one hour. The plot has been fleshed out for the purpose, making the performance much more challenging than before, she adds.

On Aug 10, Shao rehearsed for the piece from early morning till evening. She played her role in her mind over and over again even during breaks or when she applied makeup. She was so immersed in the character that she was oblivious of what was happening around her.

Such an incredible degree of dedication has been a habit of hers since Shao played her first lead role, Du Liniang, at 23, when she was a fresh graduate from Beijing Opera Arts College. Du is one of the most famous characters in Kunqu Opera from the classic, The Peony Pavilion, written by famous playwright Tang Xianzu from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

Shao was one of the few students in her class who had no training in traditional Chinese operas. "Some of my classmates had learned Peking Opera (a 200-year-old traditional opera) since childhood and others had trained in Kunqu Opera," recalls Shao. "I felt lost in the beginning because I had to learn everything from scratch and work extra hard to catch up with other students."

Her mother quit her job in Harbin and moved to Beijing to help Shao pursue her dream. From 2001 to 2003, Shao took more classes than any other student after school and her efforts paid off. Her first leading role in The Peony Pavilion was overwhelming and her performance earned her wide recognition.

In 2010, Shao landed her second lead role. She played Lin Daiyu in the Dream of the Red Chamber, adapted from the Chinese novel by the same name written by Cao Xueqin during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Shao never had to look back. She became a star of Northern Kunqu Opera Theater with more roles in the company's productions, including The Legend of White Snake and The Palace of Eternal Life. She studied further at the National Academy of Chinese Theater Arts, and earned her master's degree in Kunqu Opera performance in 2010.

In 2013, she became a student of veteran Kunqu actress Zhang Jingxian. The same year, she won the Best Newcomer title at the Magnolia Stage Performance Awards held in Shanghai, which was first launched in 1989 by the Shanghai Federation of Literary and Art Circles. She also won the award for best acting at the 10th China Art Festival.

In 2016, along with her director husband Zhang Peng, Shao initiated The Original State Version series, restaging some classic Kunqu Opera pieces with the objective to trace the style through the Ming and Qing dynasties.

"Two key ways to keep the ancient art form alive is by training enthusiasts and building up a young fan base," Shao says. "For the latter, we use social media platforms and create original Kunqu Opera pieces, which appeal to young people without distorting the essence of the art."

Shao has been the deputy director of the acting center at the Northern Kunqu Opera Theater since 2017. In addition to her regular shows, she arranges training for young performers and focuses on creating new pieces. She notes that two-thirds of the performers in the company are under 35, which injects vitality to the theater founded over six decades ago.

Last year, the company dished out a new piece, Lin Huiyin, based on the life of one of the first modern female architects of China who was born in 1904 and died in 1955. This June, the company staged Cao Xueqin, the life story of the well-known Qing Dynasty writer.

On Aug 8, the company released The Peony Pavilion online, scoring nearly 3 million views in two hours. The piece was performed at Zhengyici Theater, which celebrates its 310th birthday this year. To engage netizens, the cameras often panned from the stage to the gallery, where all spectators wore hanfu, the traditional attire of the Han people.

"The heartwarming part is that so many young people are willing to watch Kunqu Opera performances, whether online or offline. They are keen to learn and explore, and as actors we cannot ask for more," says Shao.

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