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Soaps meet opera

The cast of Treading on Thin Ice Photo: Courtesy of Zhejiang Xiaobaihua Yue Opera Troupe

In a reversal of roles, soap opera-like online novels are being reworked into Yue Opera, a traditional Chinese art form with origins in late 19th century Shaoxing, Zhejiang Province.

A version of Treading on Thin Ice by the Zhejiang Xiaobaihua Yue Opera Troupe finished a three-day premiere in Shanghai on October 8, and the Shanghai Yue Opera Troupe debuts its adaptation of The Legend of Zhenhuan next week. Both of the TV series versions of these stories were among the top shows of 2011 and 2012.

The combination of popular TV dramas and traditional Chinese opera has so far been met with success. According to a source with Treading on Thin Ice, the premiere had 80 percent of the seats filled. Tickets to The Legend of Zhenhuan were half sold out only an hour after they went on sale, leading the troupe to tack on an extra performance.

"If a story focuses on the relations of the emperor, the generals and the ministers, it should be adapted into a Peking Opera. But if it deals with romance, it should be a Yue Opera. That is where we shine," said Yang Tingna, a lead actress in The Legend of Zhenhuan.

Though a leading lady, Yang plays the emperor. In fact, it's a widespread tradition in Yue Opera for most male roles to be played by actresses. Both these adaptations feature all-female casts.

Juicy source material

Since 2008, the actress in the title role of Zhenhuan, Li Xudan, has been a fan of the novel on which both the opera and TV show The Legend of Zhenhuan are based. Li, 24, recommended it to her colleagues, including Yang Tingna, 36.

The Legend of Zhenhuan tells the life of Zhenhuan, who at the age of 15 is selected to become a member of the emperor's harem and then rises to become a powerful queen. She first loves the emperor sincerely, but becomes disillusioned after she finds out her husband regards her as nothing but a replacement for his ex-wife, leading Zhenhuan to start up an affair with her brother-in-law.

Zhenhuan possesses a brave heart and a wise and scheming mind in the TV series. But Li said in the Yue Opera version, the heroine is much more kind. "We wanted to show the great change after she experiences so much, from a very pure girl to a clever woman," Li told the Global Times.

Capitalizing on a trend

Li Li, director of the Shanghai Yue Opera Troupe, said they picked this online serial because they wanted to attract more attention.

Though she was not sure if every fan of the story would be interested in Yue Opera, the success of the productions thus far has proved that something is working.

The big ticket sales show the high expectations of the audience and Li Li said she will look into more online stories as potential material for future adaptations.

Similar reasons led the Zhejiang Xiaobaihua Yue Opera Troupe to create its rendition of Treading on Thin Ice. Troupe director Mao Weitao knew of the online novel from her daughter, and she watched the whole saga on TV with her family. She was captivated by the story of a young office worker traveling back to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) after a car crash, and finding herself in the midst of nine princes battling for the crown.

The story also grabbed the attention of Zhang Yiqing, the actress who plays the heroine Ruoxi in Treading on Thin Ice. Zhang told the Global Times that she thought the story was on par with any classical Chinese legend in history.

"We can't [dramatically alter] classical pieces of Yue Opera," Zhang remarked. "But we can try a lot of new things with this story."

Create rather than copy

Li Xudan and Yang were surprised when they heard about their troupe's plan to do the Zhenhuan story, especially when they learned that it would be them leading the performance rather than the veteran stars of the troupe.

Most of the actresses in The Legend of Zhenhuan are from the younger generation of the troupe. Director Li Li said that some of them have already become popular with fans.

"They are just the age of the characters, so it is very suitable for the young generation to act out this opera," said Li Li, adding that they're also the same age as the fans of the online novels.

Yang also pointed out an in­teresting difference between older fans and younger ones: "The older Yue Opera fans ... judge you based on whether you have done the same as your teachers and your teacher's teachers. Young fans ... will like you perhaps only because the costume makes you look handsome, and they like your personality."

Modern twists

As the story of Treading on Thin Ice takes place during the Qing Dynasty, the staging and costumes are limited to the Qing style, meaning that the long sleeves and poses traditional to the Yue Opera wouldn't be appearing.

Zhang said this wasn't a limitation because at its core, Yue Opera isn't about costumes but singing.

"Our performance is done in a very modern way, containing some elements from modern drama," said Cai Zhefei, who plays the hero in Treading on Thin Ice.

Though its design is very classical, the Shanghai troupe's production of The Legend of Zhenhuan also shakes things up a bit. Some roles are merged, and some characters change lovers.

"For the artistic features of Yue Opera, it is necessary to simplify the roles and shorten the plots," the novelist behind The Legend of Zhenhuan, Wu Xuelan (also known as Liulianzi) told the Global Times when asked about the changes to the stories and characters.

"But I believe that no matter how it was adapted, the director and playwright will keep the main ideas in line with the original story, and the new elements will be acceptable to most audiences."


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