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October 19, 2019

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Peking Opera’s ancient ‘crime and corruption’

Shanghai-produced experimental Peking Opera plays “Nobody” and “The Death of A Government Clerk” are unveiled at the ongoing 2019 Xiqu Opera Black Box Festival in Beijing.

Created by generations of artists of the Shanghai Peking Opera Troupe, the two productions have moved the backdrop of original Western novels to ancient China. Oriental aesthetics and traditional Chinese theater elements like pingtan (sto­rytelling to music in Suzhou dialect) are incorporated into the music and sets.

The Chinese story of “Nobody” is set in the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). The tale is borrowed from “The Cop and the Anthem,” a work by William Sydney Porter, better known as O. Henry.

The plot follows a castaway scholar Jia Ruyu who wants to go to jail so he will have somewhere warm to stay during the winter. However, he is initially refused by detective Ma Liu.

But later an unexpected delivery case gets Jia arrested and he is sent to the Liangshan Jail.

Scriptwriter Zhang Chuyin said she adapted the famous story with distinctive Chinese flavors because she hopes to make Peking Opera more accessible to today’s young audience.

The play has simple stage sets and props with only a chair, a fan and a black curtain, which contrasts to some other plays with lavish multi-media sets. The simple staging is to provide viewers with more freedom for imagination.

Zhang Yingjie, producer of the play, said an experimental small theater is an ideal form for such a production, and it will shorten the psychological distance between the performers and audience.

“A small theater audience will notice a performer’s delicate change of facial expression, while performers quickly get the response from the audience for a better interaction,” Zhang said.

When the play, with an investment of only 20,000 yuan (US$2,828), debuted in 2015 in Shanghai, it was hailed by its local young audience.

Set in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), “The Death of A Government Clerk,” adapted from Anton Checkov’s short story, tells a tragic tale of a scholar who failed an imperial exam.

The death of the scholar is also a satire on the corrupted political system at that time.

Celebrated Peking Opera artist Yan Qinggu plays several roles in the play. His performance combines dance, dialect and mime.

Yan noted the small theater offers a wide platform for young artists to innovate and practice.

Over the passing decades, a lot of Peking Opera artists have spared no effort to explore diverse styles and contemporary forms of traditional Chinese theater.

A few small theater productions by Shanghai Peking Opera Troupe have emerged in recent years and successfully nurtured a number of young Peking Opera fans in the city.


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