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December 6, 2009

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Opera singer changes his tune to costumes

SINGING and performing the challenging craft of Kunqu Opera on stage was how Xu Hongqing seemed to be realizing his ambition. After all, he had been learning the age-old mother of Chinese opera styles in an eight-year program.

But eventually he realized that he was not handsome enough to stand out as a performer. So Xu accepted the inevitable and changed his career path, moving behind the curtains to work backstage for Shanghai Kunqu Opera House's costume management department.

"It is never an easy decision for any performer who originally thought that he was born for the stage," the 35-year-old recalled recently.

"I was depressed until one day I realized that my new job was equally as interesting and important as that of the singers. The wardrobes of opera costumes opened up a new world for me."

Xu was studying Kunqu Opera singing at the Traditional Opera School affiliated with Shanghai Theater Academy, and his classmate was Zhang Jun who is now acclaimed as the "Prince of Kunqu Opera." Xu joined Shanghai Kunqu Opera House right after graduation.

But now, with about 15 years' experience behind the scenes, Xu is a senior costume artist for the troupe, in charge of all garments and accessories used in its 120 or so performances a year.

Xu's office is more correctly described as a storehouse. It holds dozens of 2-meter high wardrobes, trunks and a variety of clothing display fixtures. The 1,000 sets of silk garments stored systematically are also carefully folded to prevent damage and ware.

"As the old adage of Kunqu Opera goes, a performer would rather be dressed up in worn clothes than in wrong ones," Xu said. "Costumes used in traditional Chinese theaters are usually called xingtou. They must enable the audience to distinguish a character's gender and status at first glance. Some can also convey useful information about the character's personality and subtle mood changes."

For instance, according to a costume tradition, the heroine Du Liniang and hero Liu Mengmei of the romantic play "The Peony Pavilion" should both wear green to indicate their possible romance in the "Interrupted Dream" excerpt.

Even such small accessories as fans need to match the type and status of the characters.

The older male roles (laosheng) usually use fans decorated with watercolor figures and landscape paintings while the young male roles' (xiaosheng) fans have scattered golden spots on the surface. Floral patterns like peony and plum blossom are common for the golden fans used by young female roles (huadan).

Most pieces in Kunqu Opera wardrobes are a combination of dyed silk with hand embroidery of traditional Chinese patterns and are selected for high aesthetic value. They can't be washed.

Xu carefully prepares collar protectors and special shuiyi, a kind of underwear for the singers, to protect costly garments from performers' perspiration which can change the original colors.

He notes that, compared with the costumes in Peking Opera which are considered by the majority of people to be magnificent and brilliant, the Kunqu Opera costumes are more exquisite, elegant and scholarly as the art form usually depicts young scholars and cultivated young ladies.

"But there is still an obvious difference between Kunqu Opera's costume tradition and that of the sentimental and feminine Yueju Opera," Xu added. "Young ladies usually play male scholars in Yueju Opera, which can explain why pink colors are so widely found in its garments."

He has developed a habit of checking dozens of clothing items three times on each performance day, once early in the morning, once hours before the performance and once after the show. He takes a mooncake tin box with him which contains a sewing kit to fix buttons and also replacement batteries for emergency.

Quick thinking is also an indispensable part of Xu's work as a costume artist. His colleague once forgot to bring the chaoban prop, a tablet held by officials when having an audience with the emperor. As the show was only minutes from starting, Xu quickly improvised a paper clipboard of the same shape as a substitute.

It was not until two years ago that Xu started to learn costume design from scratch. His new assignment from the troupe was to present at least 30 sets of costumes for the full-length version of the Kunqu Opera classic "The Palace of Eternal Youth."

"It was really a big challenge for me to get involved in this highly anticipated show as a costume designer," Xu said. "I had no previous design experience but fortunately I was familiar with the play and its characters from my former singing experience and when I had visited the clothing factory with my teachers."

Since the story involves luxurious imperial lives in ancient China, Xu didn't want his garments to appear too plain and traditional.

He made a bold attempt to change concubine Yang Yuhuan's skirt from white in the play's earlier incarnations to red after she was killed in the show. Yang's body in a long red dress in the touching scene with Emperor Tang had a greater impact on the audience and drove the play to its climax.

"Female ghosts are frequently depicted with long hair in a white dress on the theater stage," Xu explained. "But my understanding is of the concubine as a magnificent beauty who can't be that normal after death."

The show's debut last year was a huge success, receiving wide acclaim not only for its acting but also for the compelling stage scenes and costumes. The protagonists' garments, in the eyes of many loyal Kunqu Opera fans, looked young and innovative.

Shanghai Kunqu Opera House now plans to spend another 800,000 yuan (US$117,890) on making new garments and Xu is engaged in drawing sketches and contacting veteran embroiderers.

Like much traditional theater, embroidery, a folk art with a history of more than 3,000 years, is also in decline with a decrease in the number of apprentices.

"Suzhou (in Zhejiang Province) is a regional center for embroidery art," Xu said. "It usually takes a veteran embroiderer half a year to finish a complicated imperial robe. It's also very expensive.

"A garment like this costs about 8,000-10,000 yuan. But it's worth it. The garments made with traditional techniques can last more than 100 performances over 20 years."

Xu just makes small adjustments to some of the traditional costume designs. But he modifies aspects to cater for modern tastes, like colors so they are not too heavy or flowery and patterns so they are not too complex.

Xu is optimistic about the future of Kunqu Opera which is recognized by UNESCO as a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity.

"Over past years, we have promoted the art form among all the local colleges," Xu said. "We showed young people not only the singing skills of the opera, but also its behind-the-scenes culture and stories. Many students had unforgettable experiences dressing up in Kunqu Opera costumes which might help them build a deeper connection with the art."

Though Xu's career went in another direction after he gave up singing on stage, he gets a great sense of accomplishment from his second choice opera role. He adamantly believes that the strong future of Kunqu Opera lies not merely in sustaining its unique vocal arrangements, but also its costume and scenery traditions.


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