Faced with a declining audience for Peking Opera, an heir to the theatre leads a movement to give it a more contemporary feel, Chen Nan reports. Peking Opera, like many other ancient art forms in China, is struggling to survive in the face of a fading fan base. It's a fact that even Li Baochun, the son of the late Peking Opera master Li Shaochun (1911-75), who himself is a star of the theatre, admits.
However, instead of lamenting about the bad situation, Li, 64, has been pushing the boundaries of the traditional theatre and reaching out to audiences, especially the younger generation, with solid performances and his modern sensibilities.
Taipei Li-yuan Peking Opera Theater, which Li founded in 1998 after he moved to the island, will stage Li's latest work, The Confidants, in Beijing on Oct 25.
It will then launch a tour of the Chinese mainland and appear at the China Peking Opera Festival in Tianjin in November.
Adapted from the theatre drama by renowned scriptwriter Guo Qihong with the same title, The Confidants revolves around good friends, Gu Zhenguan and Wu Zhaoqian, from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
Gu, an intellectual working for the government, tries hard to get back his friend Wu, who committed a crime and was banished to Ningguta, the ancient land of exile in northeastern China. However, when Gu is finally reunited with Wu 20 years later, he is disappointed to find that Wu is not the same person any more and the two seem to be estranged.
In 2009, along with Guo, Li had watched the drama in Beijing when actors of the People's Art Theater first performed it. Attracted by the story and roles, he was fascinated by the notion of revising the drama with a Peking Opera approach.
"I like the conflict told through the story, which is suitable for a Peking Opera adaptation," Li says. "Also, it connects with today's audiences, even though the story happened hundreds of years ago."
"Peking Opera has so many great ways to interpret a role, especially in displaying complicated emotions. I read the first chapter revised by Li and I loved it," Guo said in an earlier interview.
Li spent the past few years working on the script and directing the show. He also plays the role of Wu, who used to be as righteous as Gu but later lost his way.
"I am attracted to the change of Wu, which resulted from the hostile environment and his miserable life in Ningguta," Li says. "He has to cater to the authorities there to survive, becoming less virtuous. Those changes are unacceptable to Gu so they grow apart in the end."
Renowned Kunqu Opera actor Qian Zhenrong has been invited by Li to perform the role of Gu.