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Cross-dressing legend

SINGER Li Yugang is considered a contemporary legend in the style of nandan artist Mei Lanfang, a Peking Opera master who depicts ancient women on stage so vividly.

Born into a farming family in northeastern China's Jilin Province, Li, 32, rose to overnight fame in 2006 through China Central Television's talent show "Star Boulevard" without any professional Peking Opera training.

On May 29, Li will stage "The Flowers in the Mirror, the Moon in the Water" at Shanghai Grand Stage following the show's successful performances at the Sydney Opera House and Beijing's Great Hall of the People. The female impersonator, dressed in a traditional Chinese gown, will portray different women's captivating charm through his unique singing style and graceful dancing.

Audiences will be stunned by his interpretation of the beautiful young girl Du Liniang in "The Peony Pavilion," the elegant and talented Concubine Yang Yuhuan in "Drunken Concubine" and Wang Zhaojun, who was sent to the north to appease the tribal chief of a southern Hun tribe in ancient China.

A highlight of Li's Shanghai performance will be a popular song from Stanley Kwan's movie "Center Stage" about the late Shanghai actress Ruan Lingyu's legendary life in the 1930s.

Li talks about his early performing days, the allure of nandan art and his desire to promote traditional Chinese theater overseas.
Q: You rose to fame on a TV talent show. Compared with many other performers who went to a professional school to learn Peking Opera, what are your strengths and weaknesses?

A: Even though I now perform with the China Opera and Dance Drama Theater, I don't want to hide the fact that I am a grassroots player. I should say I am both lucky and very hardworking. It is difficult for people to understand what I have devoted to the nandan art. I have to practice more and more, harder and harder to satisfy picky audiences. But I also have my own strengths. My performing style won't be stereotyped or restricted by some routine rules. I can perform more creatively.

Q: You have tried many singing styles before, what made you finally decide to take up a nandan career?

A: With the rising number of female Peking Opera singers, there seemed to be no need for male performers to take female roles on stage. So the art in China has been fading for the past 30 years. I used to perform in pubs in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, and also once opened a housekeeping service company, but it went bankrupt because I am not a good businessman. By accident at a performance in which I played an ancient stage woman, my friends recognized my talent and unique charisma when I was dressed and made up as a woman. In fact, unlike many of my predecessors, I initially took up this career to make money to support my family. But I soon fell in love with the art form.

Q: Mei Lanfang is the most famous Chinese nandan artist. What do you think of the comparisons people make of you to him?

A: I'm happy about what I've achieved but artistically these's still a very big gap between him and me. Mei is such a great person who experienced wartime trauma and the huge transformation of Chinese society yet never gave up his ideals. He also created many patriotic performance pieces and promoted traditional Chinese opera to the world. I am more fortunate than him to be living in a peaceful age but, on the other hand, my experiences are still not rich enough to present real masterpieces.

Q: You usually add a lot of modern elements to your performances. Are the lasers, costumes and dazzling visual and sound effects equally important parts of your show and how do you mix traditional and pop cultures?

A: There has been a big change in modern tastes, requiring the introduction of fashionable elements into traditional theater to attract crowds. I've never believed that singing and acting is all that opera can offer. It should be a comprehensive art that allows audiences to also get fun and inspiration from other aspects, like makeup and costume design.

Q: Your performance last year at Sydney Opera House was a huge success. What did you gain from this experience?

A: It gave me confidence to dream bigger. The show not only appealed to a big foreign audience but also aroused overseas Chinese people's nostalgia for home and its brilliant culture. However, the experience also made me realize the inadequacy of our nation's cultural exports compared with developed countries like the United States.

Q: What plans do you have after the Shanghai performance?

A: Later this year the show will tour Taiwan, Japan and America. I hope I can collaborate with top-notch foreign artists like Sarah Brightman.


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