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Peking Opera actor changes his tunes

Updated: 2012-10-16 20:25

An acclaimed Peking Opera performer updates the ancient art form. Mu Qian reports.

Yu Kuizhi, one of China's most famous Peking Opera actors and a household name in the country, celebrates the 40th anniversary of his initiation into the genre this year.

However, unlike most colleagues in similar situations and contrary to the suggestions of his friends and fans, Yu has decided not to hold any celebratory activities.

"I think it's not an apt time, as I'm still accumulating my art experience," he says.

"I'd rather audiences pay more attention to the art of Peking Opera than to me."

Yu celebrated in his own way — by starring in Story of Taizhen, a new adaptation of a classic Peking Opera he spent three years creating. The work was staged in Beijing in September.

The 50-year-old enrolled as a student in the Shenyang Peking Opera Company in 1972. It was the beginning of a career in which he'd become one of the top actors in the role of laosheng (dignified old man) in Peking Opera's history.

Over the next four decades, he won every honor an actor in the genre could dream of. He won "best performer" in the televised National Youth Peking Opera Televised Contest; the Plum Blossom Award for Chinese Theater; the Mei Lanfang Award; and the China Golden Record Award. He was also selected as one of China's 10 Outstanding Young Persons in 2001.

As the China National Peking Opera Company's vice-president and artistic director, Yu still performs more than 100 times a year.

Last year, he gave 137 performances in 37 cities across China. In October, he's scheduled to perform in eight universities to popularize Peking Opera among youth.

"Given my status, I'm not trying to get fame through performing. For me, it's more about responsibility," he says.

The native of Liaoning province's capital Shenyang was encouraged by his mother, a music teacher, to study music from a young age.

When he began to study Peking Opera, his teachers at the Shenyang Peking Opera Company included Yang Yuanyong and Huang Yunpeng, who graduated from Fuliancheng — the renowned Peking Opera school that operated during the first half of the 20th century.

Yu says he's grateful because he lives in an era that allowed him to receive the best education in Peking Opera. He not only studied with the old masters in the traditional way but also was among the first to study the art at the college level in China.

In 1978, Yu was one of just two students admitted to the National Academy of Chinese Theater Arts, where he studied laosheng. During his four years at the academy, he received the top grade in all his subjects.

In 1998, he became one of the country's first students to enroll in Peking Opera graduate studies. As a graduate student, he studied not only the music of the opera but also cultivated comprehensive knowledge about theatrical art and Western music.

"The traditional way of education laid my foundation, while modern education gave me more systematic knowledge," Yu says.

"As society evolves, the traditional art of Peking Opera must catch up."

In the past, audiences watched Peking Opera mainly for the singing. But a contemporary theatergoer expects not only to hear good arias but also to enjoy a unique theatrical experience.

So, when Yu and his company revive a traditional work, they adopt modern stage technologies.

Yu has starred in a number of new Peking Operas, including Red Cliff, Yuan Chonghuan and Mei Lanfang, in which a Western-style symphonic orchestra plays the music. He has also recorded more than 130 Peking Opera songs, many of which he has performed for the CCTV Spring Festival Gala.

Yu believes these are all necessary means to promote Peking Opera and make it more acceptable to the younger generation. He believes today is a good time for the art form.

"Various explorations are possible nowadays, and the time when people could only watch the so-called eight model plays is gone," he says.

"Some people think Peking Opera is waning, but I think it's developing in a good direction. And I'm glad to be part of that."

As for his own career, Yu believes that in 10 years he will be ready to celebrate his 50th anniversary.


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