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Old operas and young hearts
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Keeping traditional Chinese opera alive and appealing to younger audiences is a never-ending challenge in the face of fast-paced modern entertainment, talent shows and pop music. Kunqu and Peking opera highlights are on tap this weekend.

Both entertainment groups and artists themselves are trying to innovate and expand the appeal of the ancient theatrical art forms. Long, drawn-out stories are shortened and new elements - both thematic and choreographic - are added to attract young people accustomed to fast-food entertainment.

Since last April, the Shanghai Media Group has been preserving valuable audio-visual recordings of 30 Yueju Opera masters and 32 musicians from old videotapes and floppy disks and transferring them to DVDs.

Kunqu Opera artist Liu Yilong (third from left) and his apprentices.(photo: Shanghai Daily)

The recordings span 80 years, covering stage performances and interviews. Some are black and white silent video clips.

"This is an important campaign to prevent traditional art forms from fading into history," says Yuan Xuefen, a famous Yueju Opera performer.

According to SMG's program materials center, the digital copies will be used for research and screened to increase public awareness.

Popular entertainment shows also have kept alive the spirit of opera. Two TV programs "Kefan Hours," an interview show hosted by Cao Kefan, and "Yueju Opera Young Actors TV Challenge Tournament" were honored at the 20th Chinese TV Entertainment Star Lighting Awards.

Opera producers are being encouraged to preserve tradition while adding modern elements, like dramatic stage settings and lighting, to interest young people and help revive old arts.

Over this weekend, fans of traditional Chinese opera can enjoy two performances featuring veteran singers and their young apprentices.

Tomorrow night, renowned Kunqu Opera artist Liu Yilong and his apprentices, Hou Zhe and Hu Gang, will stage a Lunar New Year's show at the Yifu Theater. Liu, 68, from the Shanghai Kunqu Opera House, is renowned for his portrayals of clowns (chou), a classic role.

Kunqu Opera originated 600 years ago in Kunshan, Jiangsu Province, and it is more feminine and melodic than Peking Opera, often telling love stories. It has a few stock character types: the young male scholar (xiaosheng), the young woman (dan) and the dignified, older man (laosheng). The young male scholar is typically played by young female opera artists.

Veteran artist Liu can speak many regional dialects and has depicted classic characters such as Lou Ashu, a thief in "Fifteen Strings of Cash," and the powerful court eunuch Gao Lishi in "The Palace of Eternal Youth."

Liu's repertoire tomorrow will include excerpts from the classics "Water Margin," "Fifteen Strings of Cash" and "The Story of the Wicked Sea."

"This is part of our Lunar New Year's series showcasing the achievements and great personalities of the best artists," says Guo Yu, director of Shanghai Kunqu Opera House.

On Sunday afternoon, Zhou Yanping will perform Peking Opera solos. The presentations will include eye-catching settings and fashionable elements while retaining the flavor of the original. A symphony orchestra and traditional musical instruments will accompany Zhou.

The two-hour show will include excerpts from modern Peking Opera, such as "The Red Lantern" and "Taking Tiger Mountain." She will also perform popular Chinese folk songs in the spirit of Peking Opera.

"I have simplified the traditional performing style to make the art form accessible to young people," Zhou says. Each of the lines will have Chinese subtitles to help the many people who don't understand Beijing dialect.

Zhou rose to fame in the 1980s after her performance in "The White Snake" and "Qing Xianglian." Acclaimed for her natural gifts, she began formal vocal studies at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music in 1989.

Zhou has her own way of passing on traditional arts. In 2003, she founded her own Peking Opera studio, which has produced a new-style original show, "Zither Romance," aimed at young audiences.

"I don't believe Peking Opera can only impress an elderly audience today," says Zhou. "We have a large potential young audience, and we need a good positioning and promotion program that caters to their tastes."

Liu Yilong's Kunqu Opera Show
Date: January 25, 7:15pm
Venue: Yifu Theater, 701 Fuzhou Rd, Shanghai
Tickets: 30-380 yuan
Tel: 6322-5294, 6437-7756

Zhou Yanping's Peking Opera Solo
Date: January 27, 4pm
Venue: Shanghai Concert Hall, 523 Yan'an Rd. E.
Tickets: 120-680 yuan
Tel: 6386-5772

(Shanghai Daily January 24, 2008)

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