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Peking Opera: Staging a revival

Chen Kaige's Peking Opera themed movie Forever Enthralled about icon Mei Lanfang has given the traditional art form a new lease of life and even photographic studios are profiting.

A photographer snaps pictures of a customer dressed as a Peking Opera character in the Shaoduo Peking Opera Photography Studio in Beijing. Courtesy of Shaoduo Peking Opera Photography Studi.(Photo: ChinaDaily.com)

Hu Shuxue, 23, an advertising executive recently spent half her weekend and 980 yuan dressing up in Peking Opera costumes and being snapped, after watching the movie.

"After seeing my 'traditional photo album' all my colleagues want to take photos dressed as Peking Opera characters like Madame White Snake, Du Liniang or Yu Ji," Hu says.

Producing Peking Opera photos has become trendy. Currently, in Beijing, there are around 10 studios catering to customers who want Peking Opera themed photos.

Yang Shaoduo set up Shaoduo Peking Opera Photography Studio seven years ago. In the beginning, Yang shot just professional performers, but this changed dramatically in mid-December when Forever Enthralled came out.

"The number of ordinary people who want these kind of photos suddenly increased after the movie was released," Yang says. "They are all about 27 years old or so, and most of them are females."

Hu thinks the most obvious attraction is the dramatic Peking Opera make-up. It takes nearly two hours to complete the process, during which time professional performers teach some basic skills, such as expressions, movements and poses.

"I got a really good lesson in this art taking these photos," Hu says.

Hu also paid a visit to Mei Lanfang Memorial Museum, a siheyuan at 9, Huguosi Street, in Beijing's Xicheng district, where Mei spent his last 10 years.

Ruifu Xiyuan, a Peking Opera house, collaborates with the Beijing nightclub Yugong Yishan.

"It is funny to enact a traditional art form in such a modern place," says Li Ruishui, 24, a Peking Opera beginner.

There is a regular party for the city's Peking Opera fans from 2 to 5 pm every Sunday. Twenty or so amateurs go on stage and sing several pieces for the first one and half hours. Then, six or seven professional performers will sing during the final half hour.

Most of the attendees know little about the art. Li has learned several famous Peking Opera pieces - such as Farewell My Concubine (Bawang Bieji) and Drunken Beauty (Guifei Zuijiu) - that he performed at his company's year-end party.

Zou Weici, the event planner of Ruifu Xiyuan, says he enjoys meeting young people who know nothing about the art and introducing them to professional performers.

Mei Lanfang Theater and Chang'an Grand Theater are the most popular places for Peking Opera, but are "too expensive for young people," says Su Yi, a Peking Opera fan.


But there are other options. Changheyuan, an experimental theater of the China National Peking Opera Company, is one of them.

"First it is very cheap. We students can afford 50 yuan each time. Second, it has some famous pieces, like Havoc in the Heaven (Danao Tiangong), Farewell My Concubine (Bawang Bieji), or Yang Silang Visits His Mother (Silang Tanmu), that are very easy to understand. This is very important for young people - we are fed too many fast-food style performances," Su says.

Mei Wei, 26, Mei Lanfang's great-grandson, now works at the Mei Lanfang Memorial Museum. Though specializing in Peking Opera, he also loves rock and roll music. He even tries to combine the two art forms.

Peking Opera emerged during the 1790s in Beijing and at its peak featured 15 major schools. The art form began to lose its popularity in the 1960s. Over the past decades, the government has tried to preserve Peking Opera and encourage its development, but it can be a difficult sell to the young.

"They can try some classical pieces," Su suggests, and advises them to check out Changheyuan.

"Peking Opera is an art that people like if they try it," says Yang Shaoduo from Shaoduo Peking Opera Photography Studio. "Though it requires concentration, more young people are becoming interested.

"They gradually turn their focus from Western fast-food culture to our traditional culture," Yang says.

"Every time I am here," Li says. "Listening to their thin and high voices, I feel that is what I need. Not rock and roll, not McDonalds, not Harry Potter.

"The young generation also has the responsibility to carry on our traditional culture," Li adds.

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