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Wu's creativity breathes fresh life into Peking Opera

WU Hsing-kuo can be considered one of the saviors of Peking Opera.

In 1986, Wu, a Taiwan native, realized traditional Chinese theater was in decline and he committed himself to reviving Peking Opera. He, along with other young enthusiastic singers, founded Contemporary Legend Theater.

Since then, Wu, 57, and his colleagues have breathed new life into Peking Opera by experimenting with new ideas and combing Western stories and performing elements with traditional vocals.

His credits include "The Kingdom of Desire," an adaptation of William Shakespeare's "Macbeth" and "The Lady of Loulan," based on Euripides' ancient Greek tragedy "Medea."

Wu presented a Peking Opera performance of "King Lear," another adaptation of a Shakespeare play, at Shanghai Oriental Art Center recently.

After the show, Wu spoke with university students to share his ideas and expertise about his passion for Peking Opera and other art forms.

Q: What made you set up Contemporary Legend Theater in 1986? What's the main purpose of the theater?

A: Like many other young Peking Opera performers of that time, I was very confused about the future of this age-old art form after seeing the sharp decrease in audience numbers. Some of us blindly abandoned traditional Peking Opera performing styles and singing vocals to cater to the modern audience. But in my eyes, it was not the right way to innovate. We can always draw nutrition and new inspiration from the late masters' performing styles. The best way to attract today's audience is to give traditional topics a change of style, a new spirit, new thinking and new attitudes that reflect contemporary society and lives. Western literature classics seem another rich source for our creation and are more widely accepted by the young generation.

Q: Was it a special and challenging experience for you to stage "King Lear?"

A: It is one of my favorite plays by Shakespeare. King Lear, the protagonist of the famous tragedy, divides his kingdom among his three daughters so long as they declare publicly how much they love him. However, what gives the play such universal appeal is its touching insights into the parental relationship between a powerful, but lonely, middle-aged man and his children. Actually, the arrogant father doesn't know how to express his love. I play the 10 major characters in the story, from King Lear and his three daughters to his servant and cabinet minister. The most challenging part is how to depict the different emotions and personalities of so many characters. One of my attempts is to use different Peking Opera singing vocals and body languages for each of them.

Q: You have dabbled in acting, directing and opera producing. Which is your favorite?

A: Acting is always where my passion lies. You know, a good actor contributes so much to a production, turning ordinary into extraordinary. I enjoy every minute of my performing experience on stage or on screen. I never want to be an ordinary actor who has no personal ideas about the role to which he gives life. I love to study each character so that I can really live their lives.

Q: In your opinion, what's the current situation with traditional Chinese operas? What are the difficulties the genre faces?

A: Many traditional Chinese operas, as intangible cultural heritage, are receiving preservation funds from the government. It is such a good thing. But both the government and public institutions can do more to revive and renovate these art forms. They should give support to young artists' attempts to innovate, providing them assistance, freedom and a big platform. In addition to keeping the classics alive, artists should also work out some new productions reflecting their own period of time.

Q: You have contributed a great deal to the rejuvenation of Peking Opera. Your performances are also well received by young people. Based on your experience, how can traditional operas attract more young spectators?

A: Young audiences are the hope for the future of traditional operas. Much remains to be done to counter stereotypes of traditional theaters. By including more modern elements, they can actually take on a new look. For instance, I'm considering adding hip-hop style monologues and modern dancing to the Peking Opera "Eighteen Chats."


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