Mei Lanfang Beijing Opera brings astounding visual spectacle to Vancouver

    1 of 3 2 of 3

      (This article is sponsored by CIML [Canada] Culture Media Ltd.)

      China’s most celebrated Beijing opera company will bring one of the Middle Kingdom’s most magical tales to Vancouver over the holiday season.

      The state-owned Mei Lanfang Beijing Opera Troupe is renowned across China. Its namesake and founder, Mei Lanfang, was the country’s most famous 20th-century theatre performer.

      Mei’s son and successor as the head of the company, Mei Baojiu, died last year after a glorious career. According to an obituary in the Telegraph, Mei Baojiu stayed “faithful to his father’s style of singing”, but also embraced modern technology to make Beijing opera more visually appealing.

      “Anything that can be used to innovate should be put at the service of the content and should not overwhelm it,” Mei Baojiu said, according to the Telegraph.

      According to the president of Canadian Cultural Media, Yu Yang, the Mei Lanfang Beijing Opera Troupe’s spectacular visual effects will be on display at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on December 22 and 23 for two evening performances of The Legend of Lady White Snake.

      “There have been huge investments,” Yu stated through a translator. “There will be surprises for the audience.”

      There will also be a 2 p.m. matinee showing selected scenes from Beijing opera on December 23 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.

      The Legend of Lady White Snake is a familiar tale in China. It depicts one of the country’s eight immortals, Lu Dongbin, pretending he’s a man selling tangyuan (soup balls) at a bridge near West Lake (which happens to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the eastern city of Hangzhou).

      These soup balls bring immortality and when a boy eats them, he no longer feels hungry. Three days later, Lu Dongbin forces him to spit them out into the lake. There, they are consumed by a white snake, which gains magical powers and transforms into a woman. From there, a love story ensues.

      Directed by Mei Lanfang Beijing Opera Troupe’s artistic director and famous theatre actor Li Hongtu, the show stars Guo Wei in the title role. Guo was a silver award winner in the Chinese Ministry of Culture’s National Young Beijing Opera Performers Competition.

      Among the 75 cast and crew is Chen Yu, a well-known shadow-boxing and sword-playing actor with the Beijing Jingju Theatre Youth Troupe. She won the outstanding performance award in the National Beijing Opera Actor Television Contest.

      “All of the actors have to take a lot of time practising, understanding, and learning from a young age,” Yu said. “Hard work is the key. There are no shortcuts to be successful on the stage.”

      The show also features Han Shengcun, another award-winning theatre performer best known for playing elderly male characters, as well as Chen Junjie, who’s famous in China for playing the jing (painted male face) role in Beijing opera.

      Beijing opera has various categories of roles, including sheng (male), which has several subtypes. Dan is the term for female roles and traditionally, these were played by men, and chou is the comedy role.

      Founded in the late 18th century in the province of Anhui, the art form is also known as Peking opera. It was initially performed for the emperor and only decades later were the public able to see it. In 2010, UNESCO declared that Beijing opera was an “intangible cultural heritage of humanity”.

      “Beijing opera goes beyond music and singing on the stage,” Yu noted. “It’s also a combination of treasures of original art, drama, dancing, martial arts, and acrobatics."

      She recalled that when Mei Lanfang Beijing Opera Troupe performed The Legend of Lady White Snake in Beijing on October 7, the audiences were astounded. “Some of them were crying,” she said.

      It’s rather fitting, given the fame of the company’s founder, Mei Lanfang. According to a paper by U.S. academic Mark Cosdon in the Asian Theatre Journal, Mei “set the New York theatre world abuzz” and “became an unlikely celebrity” during a two-week engagement in New York in 1930.

      At the time, Mei was described as a combination of John Barrymore and Rudolph Valentino. He even drew comparisons to the most famous female actor of the time, Mary Pickford, because in Beijing opera at that time, Mei played dan roles, astonishing audiences with his falsetto voice.

      “Before leaving New York for shorter engagements in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Honolulu, he was showered with awards, honors, and gifts by an adoring public,” Cosdon wrote.

      The Mei Lanfang Beijing Opera Troupe will also visit the Musqueam First Nation on December 21 as part of a cultural exchange. It’s a reflection of the ties between the historic Chinese community in Vancouver and one of the region’s founding peoples.

      Musqueam elder Larry Grant and his brothers and sisters had a Chinese father, and this story was told in Alejandro Yoshizawa’s documentary, All Our Father’s Relations. It showed family members travelling back to their ancestral home in Guangdong province in southern China.

      “Traditional Beijing opera is a bridge to connect all these people,” Yu said. “We would like to see that culture and art have no boundaries.”

      Yu pointed out that Beijing opera is often performed at celebratory times in China. The October 7 show in Beijing, for example, occurred following the country’s National Day festivities.

      She’s hoping that Vancouverites will also take the time to enjoy the Mei Lanfang Beijing Opera Troupe’s show at an important time on the western calendar just before Christmas.

      “They can enjoy this holiday show,” Yu said. “The wonderful Beijing opera will make this year’s Christmas a little different from the routine.”

      The Mei Lanfang Beijing Opera Troupe will perform The Legend of Lady White Snake at 7 p.m. on December 22 and December 23 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. Beijing opera selected scenes will be performed at 2 p.m. on December 23 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. For tickets, call 604-343-6260 or visit the Mega Box Office website.

      (This article is sponsored by CIML [Canada] Culture Media Ltd.)