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Flowering of Chinese stage talent

TV personality and opera singer Bai Yansheng is well known for his quick wit, knowledge and versatility in hosting his weekly interview with traditional Chinese opera singers on CCTV.

Bai is also a regular MC for the annual Shanghai Magnolia Stage Performance Awards. He does the honors again this year next Thursday at the Shanghai Theater Academy.

Now in its 19th year, the gala honors China's best in 12 theater genres, including drama, dance drama, children's plays and traditional Chinese operas - Peking, Huju, Kunqu, Yueju and Huaiju.

The national equivalent is the China Plum Blossom Awards, also held in April.

In Shanghai, 28 nominees from all over the country are competing for Best Leading Actor/Actress, Best Supporting Actor/Actress, Best New Talent in a Leading Role and Best New Talent in a Supporting Role.

Overseas talent is also recognized.

The 41-year-old Bai is keen on traditional opera.

"Traditional theater is never the opposite of pop art," says Bai. "They can influence each other." There is ample proof, he says, citing Taiwanese pop singer Jay Chou's well-received Chinese opera-flavored scores.

Bai authored a popular book about traditional Chinese operas, and recently released an album containing his own opera excerpts. Some are performed in collaboration with veteran artists Ma Lan, Wu Qiong and Liang Weiping.

He developed an interest in traditional Chinese opera when he was a child, and he says that interest had to be cultivated and nurtured.

"My own experience tells me that no one can fall in love with any type of art at first sight. They need someone to open the door," Bai says.

As traditional arts don't hold much appeal to young people captured by fast-paced entertainment, Bai says it's important to encourage interest early in life.

That's what he tries to do ?? open the door ?? every Tuesday night in his interview with an opera artist on the Traditional Chinese Opera Channel of China Central Television.

The program uses catchy advertising and online promotions and infuses traditional opera with a modern flavor.

It is aimed not only at aging enthusiasts of traditional opera, but also students and young professionals.

"My job is to act like a bridge that connects the traditional arts with young hearts," Bai says.

Bai used to host the news program "Oriental Horizon," but for the last 14 consecutive years he has presided over a traditional opera program.

Each year he interviews around 100 performers of traditional Chinese theater.

Though he has talked to many artists, few have made a strong impression on him.

"To my disappointment, few performers take up reading as a lifelong hobby," Bai says. "It is far from enough to teach young performers only the vocal performance skills. Performers should improve their understanding of profound traditional arts and culture if they want to distinguish themselves."

More on the Magnolia Awards

Since its launch in 1990, the annual Shanghai Magnolia Stage Performance Awards has been considered the city's top prize for theatrical excellence in China ?? and sometimes abroad.

Twelve genre are recognized, including drama, opera, dance drama, children's plays and traditional Chinese operas ?? Peking Opera, Huju Opera, Kunqu Opera, Yueju Opera and Huaiju Opera.

Twenty-eight nominees from around China are in the running for Best Leading Actor/Actress, Best Supporting Actor/Actress, Best New Talent in the Leading Role and Best New Talent in a Supporting Role.

This year's Honorary Lifetime Achievement Award will go to versatile artist Pei Yanling, known for his performances in Peking Opera, Kunqu Opera and Hebei Bangzi (literally Hebei Wooden Clapper Opera).

Next Wednesday at the Shanghai Art Theater, nominees will present excerpts of their performances.

In addition to the awards and performances, the Magnolia Awards offers traditional opera lovers forums and workshops on the state of traditional theater by China's leading opera directors, performers and industry insiders.

"We also hope to promote theatrical arts to the younger generation," says Chen Daming, an organizing committee official. "It will be a good platform for in-depth exchanges on creativity and performing skills."


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