Henan opera performer intends to make arts more appreciated
By Li Nan  ·  2022-07-25  ·   Source: NO.30 JULY 28, 2022

Xiaoxiangyu, a well-known Chinese Yuju Opera actress, believes that her most important job is to popularize arts, including operas—a gem of Chinese traditional culture, especially among the youth.

Born into it

The 57-year-old was born into a family of Yuju Opera, a traditional art that originated in central China's Henan Province. She is the step-granddaughter of Chang Xiangyu, a Yuju Opera master who founded the Chang School, the opera's main school. In the early 1950s, Chang staged charity performances around China to raise funds, and she once used the proceeds of the "Xiangyu Drama Club" to buy a fighter jet to support the War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea (1950-53).

Both Xiaoxiangyu's parents were arts school educators. Growing up in this family setting, Xiaoxiangyu spent her childhood learning Yuju Opera. Yuju Opera boasts various genres and a rich repertoire. Mastering its skills requires much practice as it is a performing art integrating singing, dancing, acrobatics and martial arts. Its characters are portrayed with highly coordinated movements of hands, eyes, the body, hair and feet. "I have always practiced hard," she told Beijing Review. She started out as a dan, or the female lead in different operas.

In 1982, she started rehearsing the Yuju Opera Mulan. Mulan is the legendary Chinese folk heroine who disguised herself as a male warrior to take her father's place in the army. Unlike other female lead roles, playing Mulan required her to dress like a man and wear chunky boots. To get used to wearing these heavy boots, she would put them on in the morning, and by the time they'd finished the day's rehearsal and performance, her toenails had turned black due to bleeding. "The key to performing Chinese opera is persistence, dedication and unity," she said.

Her efforts paid off. The performance was a great success and Xiaoxiangyu became a well-known Yuju Opera actress in north and central China, especially in Henan and Shaanxi provinces, receiving wide applause. In 1985, she first took part in China Central Television's Spring Festival Gala, an annual program broadcast live on the eve of the Chinese New Year and one of the country's most-watched television shows.

During the gala, Xiaoxiangyu met many big names from the country's performing arts circles. "I realized I was the least-known artist there. Although I had performed many times on many stages, I still had a lot to learn, for example, like how to sing and act more 'scientifically'," she said. She left the stage and enrolled at Zhengzhou-based Henan University.

After graduation, she successively became the leading actress of art troupes in Henan and Shanxi provinces. Xiaoxiangyu took part in many opera performances and won the Plum Performance Award in 1993, the top accolade for traditional opera actors in China.

Xiaoxiangyu, a Chinese Yuju Opera actress, takes to the stage as Mulan (COURTESY PHOTO)

Actress to educator

But Xiaoxiangyu always wanted to do something "bigger." "My grandma had once donated money to purchase a fighter jet for the country, so I also wanted to do something to serve society. This ambition runs through my veins," she said. The turning point came in 1994: She used her savings to set up China's first Project Hope arts school in Taiyuan.

She traveled to the rural areas of Shanxi, Henan, Hunan, and Anhui, to recruit students. For those who were orphans or from poor rural families, the school waived tuition and accommodation fees.

Six years later, the school was relocated to Beijing for a bigger stage for its students. She has offered free training courses to children whose parents are migrant workers in Beijing since 2005. At the same time, she was looking for a place to establish another school.

In 2010, her dream came true. Xiaoxiangyu established another performing arts school in Pinggu District, northeast Beijing. This time, she worked with the local government: the latter built the school, and she ran it. It's a rural school offering students nine-year compulsory education as well as free art courses, including Yuju Opera, dancing, singing, kungfu, and other forms of acting. "The school aims to improve the overall development of its students by taking academic education as its core, and arts education as its wings," Xiaoxiangyu said.

The local government reserved funds to build facilities such as a theater, a recording studio, rehearsal halls, a piano classroom, and so on, for the school. Every year, the school hosts a performing arts festival to allow its students to show their parents what they have learned. Famous artists are invited to join the festival and communicate with students. Guests visiting the school are often surprised to see the school's studios are in better condition than those of many art troupes.

"I am grateful that our country actively supports education with preferential policies. It allows arts enthusiasts to find a platform to realize their dreams," Xiaoxiangyu said.

So far, Xiaoxiangyu's students have been invited to perform at galas organized by leading broadcasters such as China Central Television for more than 10 times. In 2019, a group of students, all under the age of 10, gave their rendition of Mulan at the National Center for the Performing Arts. "They finished the show without skipping a beat. It was amazing," Xiaoxiangyu said, adding that staging Mulan at China's top performing arts center was an once-in-a-lifetime experience and a huge point of pride for her students.

According to Xiaoxiangyu, with the revival of traditional Chinese culture in recent years, many schools have introduced traditional operas to students. "It's good for us to popularize operas and I hope to nurture a new generation that loves arts despite not necessarily pursuing them professionally," she said. "Only this way can the arts become a must in Chinese life and grow bigger."

To engage more people in the beauty and charm of China's performing arts, Xiaoxiangyu and her team created online courses to popularize opera. "We will soon be releasing videos on aesthetic education to grow the traditional opera fanbase," she said.

Going global

Xiaoxiangyu believes that international communication, no matter its form, is another way to grow the fanbase. Before the pandemic, she had been performing in a dozen of foreign countries, including the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Brazil and Indonesia.

"When performing in South America, for example in Brazil, we used to worry if locals were able to understand Yuju Opera," she said. It turned out that the Brazilians liked it. Some people even came to watch their performance again in the next city on the tour.

"When you genuinely share your art with people outside China, even if they are unfamiliar with the genre, they will like it," Xiaoxiangyu said. "I hope the Belt and Road Initiative [a China-proposed initiative that aims to boost connectivity along and beyond ancient Silk Road routes] will cover more countries and regions so that we can have more international exchanges and showcase Chinese arts."

(Print Edition Title: A Hard Act to Follow)

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon

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