China / Society

Traditional Chinese operas face battle for audience

(Xinhua) Updated: 2014-07-13 17:34

WUHAN - Visitors to a Chinese opera festival in central China's Hubei Province over the past two weeks might easily come away with the impression that traditional operas are thriving.

"It's truly a happy festival for us and we've been waiting for too long," said Yang Jun, a renowned Huangmei Opera artist. The First Hubei Traditional Chinese Opera Gala was held in 2008. At that time, no one expected the gala would survive six years.

This year, about 100,000 people watched over 100 performances from 19 schools of traditional opera. The performances were staged in theaters, villages, and squares.

However, industry insiders played down the strong attendance, saying most traditional Chinese operas still find it hard to win audience.

Over the past half century, many schools of traditional Chinese opera have died out and the total number has decreased from around 360 to 200, the China Culture Daily said, quoting former vice minister of culture Wang Wenzhang.

"I cannot help but be pessimistic about their future," said Peng Wanrong, head of the art department of Wuhan University.

A losing battle?

Traditional Chinese operas generally have their roots in the countryside. Their singing and dancing traditions as well as storytelling have gradually lost resonance with the young generation. They have to fight for attention with modern forms of entertainment such as movies, television and video games.

"It is not easy for these old operas to win the hearts of modern people, especially the youngsters, who are spoiled by choice," said Fu Caiwu, director of the research and innovation center of national culture at Wuhan University.

"In contrast, the number of players of an online game on any typical day can easily reach several millions," Fu said.

With the free tickets handed out during the festival and intensified publicity, the recent popularity of these operas is "atypical" and only "a flash in the pan," he added.

Peng knows this too well. He organized a staging of "The Peony Pavilion" at Wuhan University in 2008. Though an instant sensation, the phenomenal success of the famous Kun Opera piece on campus has never been repeated by other traditional operas.

"Students were curious and the tickets were free thanks to a government project known as Elegant Art Goes to Campus, which explained the full attendance rate," said Peng. "When their curiosity wore off, even free tickets could not work any magic. Distractions are way too many these days."

"Traditional operas saw their heyday in the 1980s when people were hungry for traditional things after the decade-long Cultural Revolution," Yang said.

Named one of the "Five Golden Flowers" of the Huangmei Opera, Yang came to stardom in the 1980s after her study in central China's Anhui Province, where the opera genre was popular. She is now head of the Hubei Traditional Opera Art Troupe, whose repertoire includes Huangmei Opera, Chu Opera and Han Opera.

Some of the festival performances were judged and awarded prizes, which Yang saw as a good opportunity for her proteges to make a mark.

"Let this also be a festival for the young artists, who have toiled in this unlucrative business for years but remained obscure," Yang said. "Winning an award can be life-changing and encourage them to stay in the business."

According to Yang, fewer than half of the young graduates from opera academies in China stick to the profession after ten years. Salary is low because of poor ticket sales. Government subsidies for the artists' performances are meager and have to be spread out to cover all troupe employees, including those who have retired.

Survive of thrive?

Though prizes and awards may be life-defining for young artists, Peng said too much attention spent on coveting awards harms the arts industry.

"Award-oriented opera productions are simply too vain," Peng said. "The whole industry should focus on increasing audience size by making these traditional operas more appealing to the general public instead of pleasing the judges."

Some opera artists have managed to attract a young crowd, while many others face the threat of reduced following as old aficionados grow older and young enthusiasts are a rarity.

By giving lectures on Yue Opera to university students and making the stories more relevant to the young generation, Mao Weitao, a Yue Opera artist and head of the Zhejiang Xiaobaihua Yue Opera Troupe, is a superstar in the eyes of the young.

Mao is keen to "urbanize" Yue Opera and make it appeal to the young. About 60 percent of her troupe's performances have been staged in cities.

Industry insiders applaud Mao's innovation and efforts, but suggest they are not enough to make Yue Opera thrive and are not a perfect example for other opera genres to follow.

"Turning university students into fans is not the best way to create lifelong lovers of traditional opera. An adult may recognize the charm of these operas through lectures but they are less likely to be a real part of his life if he wasn't introduced to the art form when he was a child," Peng said.

Peng suggested that students receive more exposure to traditional operas. "To love something as an emotional need is different from the kind of love that's guided by reason," he said, noting that efforts in this direction are easier said than done.

Artists have to be careful in their artistic experimentation, he warned. Many crowd-pleasers have gone "too far" and lost their character.

Yang is aware of all the difficulties ahead, but she was happy when two young Han Opera and Chu Opera artists from her troupe won top prizes at the festival.

"I always tell my troupe members to stick to their passion and be confident," she said. "But I never make a promise. I just can't."

Hot Topics