The story appears on

Page B6 - B7

January 24, 2010

GET this page in PDF

Free for subscribers

View shopping cart

Related News

Home » Feature

Tomboy star inspired by fading opera's traditions

PEKING Opera performer Wang Peiyu was smitten by the revered traditional art form at the age of 12 and has found fame as one of its most accomplished performers. But the longer she performs on stage, the more she realizes the size of the gap between her skills and the old masters. Xu Wei talks to a star striving to be her best in an era when the opera is struggling to sustain its appeal.

Different from many other Chinese theater artists, Peking Opera performer Wang Peiyu has an effortless, chic tomboy style and cool confidence.

The 32-year-old from Shanghai Peking Opera House is recognized as the best female performer after Meng Xiaodong (1907-1977) who specialized in playing laosheng - old male roles on stage.

"Laosheng is one of the most difficult and profound roles in Peking Opera," Wang said. "It is particularly hard for a woman to portray old bearded men unless she has a deep natural voice, delicate understanding of emotions and unique characteristics."

Born in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, Wang received basic training in pingtan (storytelling and ballad singing in the Suzhou dialect) and pipa (a four-stringed instrument) when she was a child.

It was not until she first attended a Peking Opera show with her uncle that the then 12-year-old discovered a hidden passion for this age-old masculine art form, and realized her childhood activity was a "destined preparation" for the career.

The talented Wang, under careful direction from Wang Siji, rose to fame quickly after winning a variety of Peking Opera performance awards during her nine-year curriculum training in the art.

"Surrounded by flowers and applause at a young age, I can well understand the connotation of Eileen Chang's famous words - 'gain fame at the first opportunity'," Wang recalled.

"The early fame was a boost to my self-confidence. I could confidently try any new play and character. With such enormous courage, I didn't even know what pressure was."

However, the longer Wang followed a career in Peking Opera, the more clearly she found that there was still a big gap between her and the old Peking Opera masters.

"Some people can't understand the extraordinary crankiness and passion revealed by the 70-something Peking Opera artist Du Jinfang during a television interview," Wang said. "The old lady should have had a better, peaceful retired life in many eyes. But I couldn't hold back my tears when I heard that Du would rather die on stage than in bed."

Wang notes that both of director Chen Kaige's films - "Farewell My Concubine" and "Forever Enthralled" - have strengthened her passion for Peking Opera. They convey the same inspiring message for a Peking Opera performer, that only his inherent passion and mania for opera can make him successful.

Known as China's national opera, Peking Opera, which originated in the late 18th century, is a synthesis of music, dance, art and acrobatics. Many performing schools have emerged during Peking Opera's development.

The opera's charm lies not only in its made-up faces, interesting props, exciting martial arts scenes or real-life actors playing roles of the opposite gender, but also in its deep connection to the lives of ordinary people and individual experience.

Using abstract movement, namely pantomime and body language, to express certain emotions and meaning is another big challenge to any Peking Opera actor or actress in addition to singing, operatic dialogues and monologues.

"There are many well-established and formulized movements for the performers, such as smoothing a beard, jerking a sleeve, opening a door and riding a horse," Wang said. "To convincingly portray characters, I have spent weeks at the countryside learning horse riding, boating and other ancient leisure activities."

In the days before film and television, Peking Opera dominated the Beijing and Shanghai stage and it was a symbol of the two cities' elite cultural life. However, like many other traditional art forms, today's Peking Opera producers are confronted with the problem of attracting new audiences.

A few troupes have been trying to innovate by using high-tech acoustic systems or creating new plays which are adapted from Western literature classics.

But Wang doesn't agree that a Peking Opera performance should focus too much on the stage effects. "We should accept the truth that Peking Opera is not mainstream or leading entertainment nowadays," she added. "But it is unnecessary to doubt the high artistic value of the opera and change it dramatically just to cater to the majority."

Wang's latest performance in Tianjin strengthened her faith in the future of the opera. She was surprised and relieved to find the hall packed to capacity with 1,500 patrons, half of whom appeared to be under 45 years old. At that moment she started to believe that the hardest time for the opera had passed.

"We lack good marketing and promotion, especially of young operatic stars who have the ability to foster an audience's early appreciation for the arts," she explained.

"Additionally, what today's audiences need is a more diversified repertoire that includes historical plays, comedies, tragedies, farces and themed modern plays," she said. "For example, why not create a unique Peking Opera play themed on the coming Expo?"

Shanghai-born stand-up comedian Zhou Libo recently made his unique one-man performance a huge success and Wang believes his popularity and fad can be duplicated in the Peking Opera field if its future performances focus more on audience interactivity.

All of Wang's thinking is related to Peking Opera and she ambitiously hopes to bring more modern elements and vitality to the art form. Her latest idea is for her own performances to become a part of young people's memories as they grow up, and in the future she wants to establish her own school.

Wang claims to have several thousand loyal fans from home and abroad who will provide support for her ambitions. The actress regularly updates her blogs on the Internet.

She loves to spend leisure time watching films, traveling and playing golf and is deeply attracted to Chinese tea culture.

She is also a frequent volunteer to local middle schools and charity organizations, where she feels happy helping others. She will also apply to run in the Shanghai International Marathon later this year.

After reading the thought-provoking book "It's Not About the Coffee: Leadership Principles from a Life at Starbucks," Wang understands even further that what an excellent Peking Opera performer really needs is not skills, but a big heart.

"It means learning to be an upright person before doing things," she said. "It also reminds me of the charming and respectable personality of the late Peking Opera master Mei Lanfang, whose modesty, life-long devotion and tolerance toward others led to his great achievements.

"Though he was a symbol and an operatic powerhouse of the time, I would like to say Mei Lanfang was not only about Peking Opera."

Wang also holds Meng Xiaodong, Mei's third wife, in high regard. Meng's laosheng performances in Chen Kaige's film "Forever Enthralled" were actually sung by Wang.

Since people are not familiar with the legendary life and artistic talents of Meng, Wang plans to host more special performances and workshops in memory of the female artist.

She also has a simple message for young Peking Opera students: "All traditional opera actors should be aware of the crisis facing the art form and they should unite to reinvigorate it, regardless of personal gains or losses."


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend