Henan Province is home to Yuju Opera, one of China’s famous national opera forms, right alongside Peking Opera and Pingju Opera. Yuju is known for its smooth voices, beautiful melodies and the strong local flavor of Henan culture. Meanwhile, its simple and unsophisticated style has made it popular throughout the country.
Like all traditional operas, however, Yuju must face the challenge of competing with modern forms of entertainment and contemporary lifestyles. But its dwindling audience has on the contrary inspired theatre groups and a number of Yuju artists and enthusiasts to preserve and revitalize the art form.
The Yuju repertoire includes an estimated 600 traditional pieces, and over 100 more have been added in the past couple of years. Among these are thoughtful contemporary scripts which relate directly to common issues in today’s society. Performances of this renewed form of Yuju have attracted many newcomers, especially the younger generation.
Wang Quanzhen is an actress in a leading Yuju Opera Troupe of Henan Province. "I feel that both expert and amateur audiences can now appreciate Yuju under a new light, as the repertoire extends. For example, Xiang Hunnv, a contemporary piece that tells the story of a woman sesame oil maker, was well received, even in big cities such as Beijing and Nanjing. As the leading role, I was especially moved by people’s enthusiasm for the opera. After each performance, we met crowds of fans, and the entire cast was praised and encouraged to carry on."
Li Yun, vice-director of Wang Quanzhen’s opera troupe, says the growing audience loyal to Yuju has afforded them an increasing number of performances each year. And more performances mean more income. Last year, Li Yun says, their revenues increased by 50 percent over the previous year.
"The actors and actresses in our troupe feel their elevated status is being confirmed with each successful performance. Their image is very much influenced by the audience’s reception, and they perform better knowing they are opera stars. In the past each show would bring in only a few thousand yuan, but now it’s five to ten times more. Now we have more confidence in popularizing the art form."
Li Yun says Yuju has also been revitalized by an opera series called Liyuanchun, or Pear Garden Spring, on Henan TV. Tong Zheng, the program’s general director, says the series is already much improved since its debut in 1994. It is now one of the most popular shows on Henan TV.
"On one hand, we’ve been trying our best to get the audience directly involved in Yuju. For example, we hold competitions for Yuju fans and amateur performers to show us what they can do on stage. On the other hand, we have invited several Yuju artists to perform master pieces from the classic repertoire. We are also training many new talents. But our main purpose is to help maintain Yuju’s popularity and to encourage people to preserve the tradition themselves.”
Among many of the most enthusiastic Yuju performers on the show is Xu Junxia.
"As a young actress, I always dreamed of playing in the Henan TV opera series. Not only is it an invaluable experience, but I know the performance will reach a much wider audience, not just in Henan, but all over China and even abroad."
Pang Xiaoge, the anchorwoman for Pear Garden Spring, says besides the TV program, the team has organized opera troupes to give performances across the country.
"We’ve been to many places - cities, such as Lanzhou, Xi’an, and Shenzhen, but also to small towns and even to remote, mountainous villages. It’s always touching to give performances deep in the countryside and to be welcomed and applauded by thousands of Yuju fans. I never imagined so many people would love the art form as much as we do."
Pang says this experience has made her realize that excellent traditions die hard, and even ancient local opera has a reserved seat in modern society.
(CRI August 21, 2002)