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Huju people's opera in local dialect

THREE years ago 12-year-old Qian Ying from Nantong, Jiangsu Province, couldn't speak a single word of the Shanghai dialect. But today the 15-year-old is singing Huju Opera arias like a fluent speaker.

Huju Opera, literally "Shanghai Opera" (hu is the abbreviation for Shanghai), is one of the traditional Chinese operas. It is typically sung in the Shanghai dialect.

However, Huju Opera is losing its appeal to young audiences who like pop entertainment, and the audience today is mainly elderly in Shanghai and neighboring cities.

Winning young fans and training young performers are among the major approaches to revive the traditional Shanghai performing art.

Formed three years ago, the Traditional Opera School, affiliated with the Shanghai Theater Academy, is the first Huju Opera school for primary school graduates - an effort to help revive the dying folk art.

Qian is one of the 28 students who enrolled in the school.

They are chosen from among thousands of applicants nationwide and are undertaking a five-year program. After graduation they could join the Shanghai Huju Opera House.

"Three years ago I had no idea of the opera, but now I find it one of the most beautiful art forms in the world," Qian says. "I love the pure, sweet and rich vocal melodies that express the characters' emotions."

Qian is not the only student from outside Shanghai - eight others come from other cities, including one from east China's Shandong Province.

Their parents are opera fans and their families believe art transcends regional boundaries.

Teacher Wang Baohua says that he is deeply impressed by the diligence of non-local students who spend their leisure time learning the Shanghai dialect and opera excerpts.

"Nowadays it is hard to enroll local children since many Shanghai families set high, non-artistic goals for their children," Wang says. "The children are told to get a well-paying stable job after university.

"Of course, the hard training to become an opera singer doesn't ensure high or quick returns."

The 19 local students of the class are mostly from rural fringe districts such as Jinshan and Jiading. Those are among the areas where Huju Opera originated, in the countryside. Their parents and grandparents love the opera.

Suburban kids

Fu Minglei from Jiading frequently sings famous excerpts at home. During the recent student performances, he played a wounded soldier in the classic "Lu Dang Huo Zhong," which tells a story of people in Shajiabang, a lakeside village in Jiangsu Province, shielding 18 injured New Fourth Army soldiers during the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (1937-1945).

"I used to be a fan of Taiwan pop band S.H.E.," says Fu. "It sounds incredible that now my favorite entertainment is singing Huju. I guess it's in my genetic code."

Though Huju Opera doesn't feature much dramatic acrobatics and martial arts, students still need to learn some basics to build strength, agility and confidence.

The courses include mime, dialogue in Shanghai dialect, gestures, varied singing and acting styles. There's a one-year internship at the Huju Opera House.

Students also attend classes about Chinese culture, art and history to help them understand the essence of traditional operas.

Teacher Zhu Genbao, a former Huju performer, says it's necessary to nurture young fans as well as teach new performers.

"Huju generally portrays the lives and romance of ordinary people decades ago," Zhu says. "These stories told in a slow rhythm with outdated costumes and staging have failed to hook young people."

Veteran Huju scriptwriters used to spend days conceiving stories at tea houses, sometimes basing them on moving stories in the news that talked about contemporary issues.

Nowadays, however, few modern stage plays depict the lives and emotions of young people.

"We're wondering if it is possible for us to innovate by moderately adding some pop elements, such as disco dancing and hip-hop," teacher Wang says.

"Some interesting excerpts from other performing genres can also inspire Huju scripts. There should also be dramatic stage settings and lighting."

The popularization of Mandarin poses another challenge to preserving and popularizing Huju and other operas in dialect. Using Mandarin facilitates communication for people from different regions, but conserving dialects is also important and striking a balance is difficult.

Almost everywhere teachers are required to speak Mandarin, even in kindergartens.

As a result, teacher Wang says, his students don't have much chance to practice the Shanghai dialect at school, except for professional training lessons in Huju Opera.

He is worried that the little-used Shanghai dialect might wither or vanish, affecting the distinctive regional culture and art of the city, not just Huju Opera.

In 2006, Huju was added to the list of national intangible cultural heritage.

"At a time of rapid urbanization, keeping varied traditional operas alive is a challenge for all of us," Wang says.


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