Mon, May 08, 2017 - Page 8 News List

Opera troupe tours rural China defending a dying art

When Li Zhiguo joined Jin Opera Troupe 35 years ago, he believed that he had secured a stable future. But policy reforms turned the government-sponsored project into a private venture, gutting the performers’ salaries and threatening the future of an early Qing Dynasty opera form

By Wang Yanan  /  AFP, YU county, China

A Jin opera actor performs on stage in March at an outdoor theatre in Yu County in China’s Hebei Province.

Photo: AFP/Wang Zhao

For the 50-year-old Chinese opera performer, every aspect of the dimly-lit backstage room was a reminder that things had changed.

The elaborate costumes carelessly thrown aside, the young troupe members playing with their smartphones, the half-eaten noodles abandoned in the corner — all were tokens of disorder that made Li Zhiguo grimace in his blue and gold cap.

“I get angry sometimes watching my students perform, because their heart isn’t in it,” Li said. “But when they ask me if rehearsing diligently will guarantee them a good living, I have nothing to say.”

When Li joined the Yu County Jin Opera Troupe in Hebei Province 35 years ago, he and his fellow teenage recruits believed that they had secured stable futures as the public guardians of a traditional art.

But policy reforms in 2005 turned their government-sponsored project into a private venture without a concrete business strategy, gutting the performers’ salaries and threatening the future of an early Qing Dynasty opera form.

Jin opera, which is characterized by upbeat songs and wooden clapper instruments, originated in the Shanxi Province bordering Yu County.

From the Spring Festival to the end of March, the troupe travels from village to village in Hebei, performing on ramshackle rural stages to mostly elderly crowds.

Despite their new business designation, they still rarely charge for performances — most attendees wouldn’t pay — and rely heavily on support from local governments.

Backstage at one of their last shows of the season, Li sighed as he recounted all the departures in recent years. Many of his students had left the troupe after struggling to support their families.

“If it’s about the art, I’ll tell them to stay,” said Li. “If it’s about survival, I’ll tell them: go.”

AN ‘IRON RICE BOWL’ NO MORE

The group of 90 has been active since 1985, drawing its members from auditions held across Yu County. The performers join when they are between 13 and 15 years old; those who stay have known each other their entire adult lives.

Liu Donghai, a former actor who now helps manage the troupe, recalled that being chosen from among more than a thousand kids had felt like winning the lottery.

His parents were thrilled because, being a state institution at the time, the troupe offered him an “iron rice bowl” — the Chinese parlance for a secure job.

However, since they were stripped of their public status, some performers have started driving pedicabs between shows for supplementary income.

Even the most senior members of the troupe make less than 2,500 yuan (US$363) a month, while the average actor makes closer to 1,500 yuan (US$217) in a district where the minimum monthly wage is 1,590 yuan (US$231).

Over the 23 years that Liu, 36, has been with the group, he has seen his cohort shrink, but a sense of loyalty has kept him from leaving.

“This is my family,” he said. “Our troupe leader is like a father to me. Whatever he says, I’ll do.”

Sometimes that means singing in negative degree Celsius weather, or dancing while snow settles on his elaborate costumes.

But as Geng Liping, a 30-year-old actress, said, “When you’re on stage you never feel cold.”

‘Sword DANGLING OVER THEIR HEADS’

Jin opera recounts ancient Shanxi history, with storylines soaked in nostalgia for the province’s imperial past. Modern audiences have different tastes, said Wang Jia, founder of the China Jin Opera Network.

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