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    Art of Adaptation: How Yue Opera Is Winning Over Young Chinese

    Traditionally favored by older generations, Yue opera has seen a resurgence among young Chinese after the viral success of one theater’s adaptation of a classic ’90s action movie. Efforts are now underway to ensure its popularity is more than a passing trend.

    Editor’s note: This is the second article in a two-part series exploring how guochao — or “China chic,” a movement blending traditional Chinese aesthetics in contemporary consumer products — continues to influence modern China, from traditional crafts and modern fashion to culture and digital media. Read Part one.

    ZHEJIANG, East China — For Bao Yajuan, a renowned Yue opera performer, nerves were typically reserved for the seconds before the curtain rose. Yet, on a Monday in March, she felt that flutter again but on an unfamiliar stage: a classroom in the eastern Zhejiang province.

    Surrounded by around 30 young, curious faces, mostly women with little or no prior knowledge of Yue opera, Bao began the session by highlighting the art form’s melodies. She described them as poetic, graceful, and capable of conveying poignant emotions.

    “It is important to enunciate forcefully, breathe properly, and infuse emotions into each note, especially when performing in the traditional dialect rather than Mandarin,” Bao told the class, underscoring the versatility required in the only Chinese opera where women mainly perform both male and female roles.

    Her course is part of a new provincial government initiative looking to capitalize on the explosive popularity of Yue opera in recent months. Free of charge and available for eight sessions, the initiative drew over a thousand hopefuls, of whom only 30 were selected through a lottery.

    The surge in interest in the art form stems from the viral success of “New Dragon Gate Inn” by the Zhejiang Xiaobaihua Yue Opera Theatre, which debuted in March last year. The show, adapted from the 1992 classic action movie of the same name, sold out within minutes, and its actors were catapulted to stardom, amassing millions of followers on social media platforms.

    Traditionally, Yue opera has appealed primarily to middle-aged and older audiences. But this time, it drew significant interest primarily from young Chinese, largely fueled by the guochao, or “Chinese chic,” movement — a revival of interest in traditional Chinese elements.

    The adoption of small theater formats, enhancing both the audience experience and accessibility, has also played a crucial role in making this art form resonate with a younger demographic.

    “As young individuals learn about and develop an interest in Yue opera, they may start attending performances, participating in competitions, and even pursuing professional careers as actors in troupes,” Bao tells Sixth Tone.

    Yue opera originated in 1906 in Zhejiang’s Shengzhou County, soon spreading to Shanghai, where numerous performances were staged. And unlike other Chinese operas, which frequently feature acrobatics and martial arts, Yue opera emphasizes singing, where the vocal style is particularly suited for telling love stories.

    Today, it ranks as the second most popular form of Chinese opera, right behind the globally recognized Peking opera.

    The success of Zhejiang Xiaobaihua Yue Opera Theatre’s performance of “New Dragon Gate Inn” among a younger generation even caught Wang Binmei, the troupe’s president, by surprise.

    “Over 80% of the audience are new young fans. This has brought great confidence to our theater troupe,” she says. Founded in 1984, the troupe has been dedicated to modernizing traditional culture, innovating in Yue opera development, and drawing a younger audience to appreciate the art form.

    From its early preparations in 2022 to its preview in Hangzhou last March, “New Dragon Gate Inn” has prominently featured young creators and actors in its publicity, according to Wang. Despite this focus on youth, Wang notes that the production team includes a wide age range, from individuals born in the 1940s to the post-1995 generation.

    “We did this to allow experienced people to provide support and guidance to young actors while enabling the experimenters to introduce new ideas, retaining the classical heritage of Yue opera and innovating to cater to the aesthetic of the times,” Wang explains.

    Planned as an immersive performance, in “New Dragon Gate Inn,” the theater itself transforms into an “inn,” allowing the audience to become part of the drama. The play maintains traditional Yue opera vocal styles but incorporates modern cinematic elements in its arrangement, performance, costumes, and makeup to create a unique spectacle.

    Shi Ruowei, 19, was among the young Chinese captivated after watching a clip of the performance on social media. “The chemistry between the two (lead) performers completely drew me in,” says the English major from Ningbo in Zhejiang.

    One of the two performers, Chen Lijun, a 31-year-old Yue opera actress, particularly impressed audiences with her portrayal of a male character in “New Dragon Gate Inn.” A scene in which she lifts and spins another performer drew widespread attention and sparked debate online, leading to a sudden rise in fame.

    Motivated by what she saw online, Shi attended a live performance soon after. “Though I sat quite far away from the stage, I could still feel the emotion in each actor,” she recalls.

    As she attended more shows, Shi began paying closer attention. “I started listening to the articulation and pronunciation of the actors, scrutinizing their expressions and interpretations,” Shi says.

    In February, Shi signed up for a seven-day exchange program at the Shengzhou Yue Opera Art School, where she immersed herself in learning the various facets of Yue opera, such as the vocals, melodies, movements, and makeup.

    “Learning Yue opera is challenging as it requires a strong foundation, and the intricate details of the movements demand a deep understanding of the characters,” she tells Sixth Tone.

    She’s now joined her university’s opera club, where she participates in activities, learns from industry experts, and teaches makeup skills to fellow members. Since she’s still a novice, she says it takes her four hours to complete full makeup. “But the shared experience of gathering with others to discuss and practice Yue opera makes it worthwhile,” she says.

    Unlike Shi, Hu Lanlan, also from Ningbo, has been familiar with Yue opera since childhood. “My grandparents were avid fans, and I grew up listening to fragments of it on the radio,” says 25-year-old Hu. She recalls singing along with her grandmother and watching community theater performances but admits she can’t recall specific plots.

    “As I grew older and school took up more of my time, my interest waned,” Hu explains. “Also, among my peers, Yue opera was considered a niche entertainment, which led me to gradually drift away from it.”

    However, the viral success of “New Dragon Gate Inn” rekindled her connection to the art form. Attending a recent show, Hu noted a break from tradition during the curtain call. Instead of the customary bows, music filled the air as the entire cast returned to the stage, interacting directly with the audience through handshakes and greetings.

    “This enhanced the audience’s overall experience,” Hu says, adding that the dialect the art form uses is more familiar to her. Rooted in Shengzhou dialect, Yue opera has also incorporated elements of Shanghai and Hangzhou dialects, forming a unique phonetic system. This makes it broadly accessible to people from the Shanghai and Zhejiang regions.

    Despite the surge in Yue opera’s appeal among younger audiences, Hu admits she’s surprised to see young people from out of town, as far as Beijing and the northwestern city of Xi’an, flocking to Hangzhou to witness Yue opera performances. “This could very well contribute to its revitalization,” she says.

    But Yue opera’s recent popularity among the younger generation is no accident. Over the past decade, the Zhejiang Xiaobaihua Yue Opera Theatre intensified efforts to attract and engage young audiences. This included nurturing young actors and curating both heritage and original repertoire specifically tailored for this demographic.

    “These initiatives provided vital platforms for training and showcasing new talent, ensuring the continuation of Yue opera,” says Wang, the theater’s president.

    As part of this effort, the Shanghai Yue Opera House, in collaboration with Fudan University, presented a free performance of “Dream of the Red Chamber” on campus last November, aimed at cultivating more student interest. This was followed by a performance in December of “The Butterfly Lovers” by the Xiaobaihua Yue Opera Troupe from Shaoxing in Zhejiang.

    The response to both shows was overwhelming. Eager university students queued outside the venue to secure seats, and during some performances, some viewers had to be accommodated on stairs and walkways.

    Yu Guo, a performer at the Shanghai Yue Opera House established in 1955, has observed a growing interest in Yue opera from young audiences since graduating from the Shanghai Theatre Academy over six years ago.

    “Yue opera embodies a rich traditional Chinese cultural heritage, yet ‘traditional’ does not mean ‘outdated,’” the 27-year-old performer asserts. “With young actors like myself taking the stage and the art form’s promotion, Yue opera holds the potential to captivate a younger audience.”

    For instance, Yu values the freedom her mentors gave her during rehearsals, allowing young actors to interpret the roles authentically rather than merely mimicking past portrayals. “This fosters creativity and individuality in performances, making Yue opera more relatable to contemporary audiences,” she says.

    Yu also underscores that the innovation in Yue opera isn’t limited to individual performances but extends to the productions themselves. Some troupes have ventured into small theater productions, introducing shorter storytelling formats that are crucial in attracting audiences and igniting interest among young theatergoers.

    “Audiences may get hooked through these innovative productions, and once they are hooked, they will naturally gravitate towards traditional productions,” says Yu.

    Despite the revival Yue opera has recently enjoyed, Wang Wannan, another performer with the Shanghai Yue Opera House, acknowledges that Yue opera still faces some challenges, particularly in its traditional presentation and dialect nuances, which might deter some audiences.

    “It’s really difficult for traditional arts to maintain their traditional beauty while also standing the test of the market,” says Wang. “I think attracting a young audience is crucial because having an audience ensures sustained interest. Only then can we truly take root among the people.”

    Additional reporting: Zhu Haijia; editor: Apurva.

    (Header image: A stage photo featuring Chen Lijun during a performance of “New Dragon Gate Inn.” From @环境式越剧新龙门客栈 on Weibo)