Exploring an opera legend's connections with the city

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An exhibition "The Plum Blossoms in the East: Mei Lanfang in Shanghai" kicked off at the Shanghai History Museum. [Photo/VCG]

Renowned performer Mei Lanfang (1894-1961) has already been the focus of many exhibitions, but the latest to deal with the Peking Opera legend focuses solely on his connection to Shanghai, the city where he lived in later years, and where he came up with his famous innovations to the traditional art form.

An ongoing exhibition at the Shanghai History Museum, The Plum Blossoms in the East: Mei Lanfang in Shanghai, contains 191 objects, 82 of which are on public display for the first time. They include one 8-meter fan painting, as well as footage of Mei's visit to the former Soviet Union in 1935, alongside exquisite costumes, props, letters, music and other historical objects.

The exhibition is hosted by the Beijing-based Mei Lanfang Memorial Museum, Shanghai University, the Shanghai Theatre Academy, and the China Peking Opera Art Foundation, and runs till February 2024.

Born in Beijing, Mei was greatly influenced by his family of opera performers, particularly his grandfather Mei Qiaoling, who can be seen in a large ink-color painting Thirteen Stars of Tongzhi and Guangxu Reigns of the Qing Dynasty, on display at the exhibition. It was painted in the late 19th century and features 13 famous singers who contributed to the founding of Peking Opera.

Mei Lanfang began learning opera as a child and quickly earned a reputation as an accomplished nandan (a man playing a female role). He made his debut in Shanghai in 1913, when he was just 19 and one of the reasons for the exhibition is to celebrate the 110th anniversary of his first Shanghai show.

"This visit surprised him a lot, as he found that the theater in Shanghai was not the same as the traditional stages of Beijing. Here, the stage was much brighter because electric lamps were used as lighting," says Ding Jiarong, director of the Shanghai History Museum's storage department, and curator of the exhibition.

This difference proved to be a turning point in Mei's career. Unlike in Beijing, where nandan actors were usually more focused on their singing because the dim lighting meant that their movements and facial expressions were not a priority, he had to adapt to the new conditions in Shanghai, and put in more effort into other aspects of his craft.

He devised new ways of moving on stage and designed new garments, makeup and stage settings suited to a better-lit stage, giving traditional opera a modern touch, says Ding.

"I felt that everything on the Shanghai stage was evolving at the time, and it had already started to move forward in a new direction," Mei wrote in his memoir, Forty Years of Stage Life. "My short stay in Shanghai, which lasted only 50 days, had a great impact on the later stages of my life."

He gradually developed a highly expressive performance style known for its vigor and grace, and later set up the Mei School of opera techniques.

"In the following years, Mei devoted himself to understanding and learning Shanghai-style culture and infused it into the Mei School," says Zhou Qunhua, president of the Shanghai History Museum. "He also traveled from Shanghai to the United States and the former Soviet Union to show Chinese art to the world."

After Japan began its invasion of northeastern China on Sept 18, 1931, Mei relocated his family from Beijing to Shanghai. He and his colleagues worked on several new performances, including Resisting Jin Troops and Happiness Neither in Life Nor in Death, to rally the nation to fight the intruders.

When a full-scale invasion began in July 1937, Mei, who specialized in playing female roles on the stage, grew a beard and left the stage because he refused to perform for the Japanese army.

After an absence of eight years — a period that is the focus of one of the sections of the exhibition — he returned to the stage in late 1945 following Japan's unconditional surrender on Aug 15 that year. His comeback performance at the Majestic Theatre, one of the oldest in Shanghai, was a sensation.

"After the victory against the Japanese, the audience wanted to see me perform because they hadn't seen me for eight years. I was away from them for a long time, and I wanted to meet them on stage," he wrote in his memoir.

On Oct 9, 1956, the then 62-year-old Peking Opera maestro staged his last performance in Shanghai, concluding an illustrious career in the city that spanned over 40 years.

If you go

The Plum Blossoms in the East: Mei Lanfang in Shanghai

East Wing, Shanghai History Museum, 325 Nanjing West Road, Shanghai.

It runs until Feb 25.

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