Yunnan Opera master Wang Meizhu (second right) gives lessons to two minor opera performers in Kunming, southwest China's Yunnan Province on Nov. 13, 2021. (Xinhua/Yan Yong)
KUNMING, Nov. 25 (Xinhua) -- Despite bearing a history of over 200 years, almost as old as Peking Opera, Yunnan Opera -- native to southwest China's Yunnan Province -- is perhaps known to only a few people.
Yet this ancient genre of drama, now on the clutches of oblivion, carries great cultural significance. Thanks to the efforts of a group of artists and opera enthusiasts in the provincial capital Kunming, the art form is gradually springing back to life.
Wang Meizhu, 78, is one of the performers. The Yunnan Opera master not only performs occasionally on the stage in local theaters, but also teaches the art form to young people.
"It is such a pleasure to see kids having an interest in this art form," she said, adding that two of her students are below eight years old.
"Compared with Peking Opera, Yunnan Opera captures the ebullience of life, and reflects the hustle and bustle of daily living," said Wang. "I believe I have a responsibility to encourage the younger generation to watch the opera and then learn to perform, as it represents part of the local intangible cultural heritage."
Yunnan Opera is a blend of Shaanxi Opera and Anhui Opera brought by outlanders during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) period and incorporated it into the local singing style of Yunnan, making it a unique Chinese opera art form.
But as the elderly artists such as Wang gradually retired, young faces are rarely seen on the stage.
In order to popularize Yunnan Opera in Kunming, the Ancient Ferry Theater was established in 2011. The theater is located in the ancient town of Guandu and the average age of its regular performers stands at around 60.
Wang said that it takes resolute efforts to become an opera performer, but the job could make ends meet previously. Young people today, however, prefer to work in the office for better pay, and they usually turn to movies, TV series, video games, and short videos for entertainment, pushing the art form to oblivion, she added.
"Yunnan Opera can be seen as a unique dialect of Yunnan people, and it would be such a pity to abandon it," said Wang, who has devoted most of her life to the art form.
During its peak in the 1970s, opera was a popular culture among the locals. Dozens of theaters were set up in Kunming and villages used to have their own opera troupes.
The tickets of sought-after performances back then were hard to get, said a theater enthusiast surnamed Zhang.
He is now a frequent visitor to the Ancient Ferry Theater, although it takes two hours to get from his home to the venue and back.
The theater not only attracts opera enthusiasts like Zhang but also draws tourists, as Kunming is a popular tourist destination.
The local government has paid great attention to protecting the cultural heritage such as Yunnan Opera while boosting the tourism sector.
The Ancient Ferry Theater arranges opera performances every week, and when the classics are staged and the weather is good, the theater sees a houseful audience.
Tickets for the performance are priced at seven yuan per person, which is around one U.S. dollar, including free tea. Each performer receives a daily payment of 10 to 20 yuan.
"We do not rely on the income, but sing for our love and passion for the art form," said Dong Linkun, 56, who has over four decades of experience performing the art form.
The artists usually spend at least two hours in the dressing room wearing makeup and warming up. They meticulously rehearse and prepare before every performance, even though some of them have sung for almost their entire life.
Yunnan Opera performers are also invited to schools so that children can have the opportunity to know about the cultural heritage, and artists like Wang can drum up the interests of students for the opera.
While it is imperative to inherit the art and culture of Yunnan Opera, it also requires efforts to carry forward the tradition in a more innovative and intriguing way, said Wang. ■