Old Opera in a New Bottle

2023-03-06 12:41:00 Source:China Today Author:staff reporter HUANG YUHAO
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A five-member women’s singing group is trying to revive flagging interest in Peking Opera by combining opera with pop elements.


The members of the 416 Girls Group (from left to right): Zhu Huan, Yang Xi, Bian Jingting, Cheng Xiaochen, and Zhu Jiayin. 

They come from different places and have different backgrounds, but they have one thing in common – the number 416. That was the number of the dormitory room assigned to them when they enrolled at the Shanghai Theater Academy as young aspiring singers, and today, it’s also the name of their band – the 416 Girls Group, that has become a singing sensation.

That’s not the only unique thing about them. They are also trendsetters, who sing modern songs in the style of Peking Opera. It’s their way to re-popularize Peking Opera among audiences today, especially young people. Despite its long history and heritage, not to mention the rich repertoire of classic characters popularized by past maestros like Mei Lanfang, today, Peking Opera is not many people’s cup of tea. One major reason for that is the difficulty in understanding what the actors are saying due to the heavily stylized singing. But when the 416 Girls Group sing pop songs in the opera style, the audience knows the songs and the different style adds an exotic appeal to it. The group’s songs and videos, combining opera and pop elements, have become an online sensation, watched by millions of viewers.

Opening Act: Coming Together 

What led Zhu Jiayin to the dormitory was a performance she watched as a nine-year-old. Her grandfather had taken her to see The Drunken Concubine, a famous Peking Opera play set in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), with the emperor’s favorite concubine as the protagonist. The plot is about the humiliation of Yang Yuhuan, who awaits the emperor at a banquet, only to learn that he has instead decided to be with another concubine. It makes her enraged, desolate, and drunk. Thus the play shows the vulnerability of the concubine despite her great beauty.

The young Zhu Jiayin was captivated by Yang’s beauty and the whole performance. She then told her grandfather she wanted to study Peking Opera. After two years of studying the art, she joined the Chinese Opera School Affiliated with Shanghai Theater Academy. Of the several girls in the class, she had a special rapport with three.

Of them, Cheng Xiaochen began to study Peking Opera at the age of five, after she saw a relative’s child study it. Yang Xi began at six, as her parents liked Peking Opera and thought it would also improve her health better than regular music and dance classes. Bian Jingting’s grandfather was an opera fan and began to teach her when she was a child. When she took part in a competition, a teacher asked her if she would be interested in studying Peking Opera, which was different from the opera she was singing, and she said yes without hesitation. Later, these four girls were admitted to the Shanghai Theater Academy (Zhu Jiayin was admitted one year later due to illness). The fifth member of the singing group, Zhu Huan, was selected to join a Peking Opera club in another school, from where she came to the Shanghai Theater Academy.

Act Two: Taking the Floor 

Perhaps the 416 Girls Group wouldn’t have come into existence if its members had not been living in today’s digital era. A generation born after 2000, social media is an integral part of their lives. They practice, sing, perform and upload video clips of their performance or training on their social media platforms.

In 2021, when Bian Jingting, Yang Xi, Cheng Xiaochen, and Zhu Huan returned to their dorm room 416 after finishing their graduation performance, they were still bubbling with energy and didn’t want to take off their makeup, which they thought was fabulous. So they did an impromptu show on the stair landing, singing a song and recording it. Soon after they posted it online, it went viral, and became a hit on several platforms. The response inspired them and about five months later, the five girls jointly recorded another song, which attracted even more attention. Soon, they became known as the 416 Girls Group, and continued to post their videos, with the Internet as their stage.

The splash they created made a music company sign them up and the group released original songs, which included lines from Peking Opera and showcased the features of the specific dan role played by each member, dan being the stylized female roles in the opera. Their songs include other traditional cultural elements too, such as Shi’erfenghuajian, which is about the 12 quintessential elements of Chinese culture, as well as expressions and hand gestures from Peking Opera. Sometimes, they dress up in traditional opera costumes and use the traditional, elaborate makeup, while sometimes they wear modern clothes, depending on the rhythm and style of the song.

The most impressive part of the group is their trained voices. Since each one has studied different types and schools of dan roles, their timbres are distinct and even majestic. They start many of their songs in the Peking Opera style (also called Xiqiang), then switch to their original voices, and suddenly sing in unison in Xiqiang again. The contrast transports the listeners to ancient times.

To them, popularity is an opportunity to disseminate Peking Opera culture. “Many people told us that they become Peking Opera fans after watching our videos,” Bian Jingting, the leader of the group, said. “Some even ask us to recommend opera plays that can be enjoyed and practiced by novices.” When Bian live-streams, she often shares knowledge about Peking Opera and even teaches her viewers how to sing, resulting in some singing along with her.

After graduation, the five singers chose different lines of work connected with Peking Opera. Bian Jingting and Yang Xi are with the Jiangsu Performing Arts Group as Peking Opera actresses, mainly playing laodan (old female character roles) and qingyi (virtuous young to middle-aged female roles), respectively. Zhu Huan is with the Jinan Peking Opera Theater, and Zhu Jiayin is the lead singer in a folk band in Shanghai where she explores the “chemical reaction between Peking Opera and folk music.”

Though they live in different places, this is not the end of the 416 Girls Group. They still get together when they are invited to an event and continue to record their videos.

The 416 Girls Group members dressed up in stage costumes.  

Act Three: Peking Opera vs. Peking Popera  

Some critics say the 416 Girls Group’s songs go against the traditional Peking Opera and mislead people about what Peking Opera actually sounds like. However, the group stresses that their songs should not be considered as Peking Opera. “Xiqiang is totally different from Peking Opera.” Xiqiang is more like popera as it includes both pop and opera elements. The group also says that as many people have become interested in Peking Opera after hearing Xiqiang, their art is a bridge connecting young Chinese with Peking Opera at a time when the time-honored art urgently needs young audiences.

Peking Opera, hailed as the quintessence of Chinese culture, sadly does not enjoy the popularity it used to once. According to the China Statistical Yearbook 2021, Peking Opera and Kunqu Opera, which is one of the oldest surviving forms of Chinese opera developed during the Ming Dynasty, had only 159 performing institutions and 9,122 practitioners that year. They performed 16,000 shows, attracting under 10 million viewers, the majority being from rural areas. Peking Opera needs to reach out beyond the elderly Chinese audiences and foreign tourists seeking a quick Chinese cultural experience to a broader audience including young people. Watching a Spring Festival gala once a year featuring Peking Opera should not be the only occasion when the art is enjoyed.

During its over 200 years of history, Peking Opera has been evolving with the times. When Mei Lanfang, one of the most famous Peking Opera stars in modern times who specialized in women’s roles, revamped The Drunken Concubine and other opera works in the last century, many people criticized him. But in the end, his reform lent new impetus to Peking Opera. While the music of the 416 Girls Group is not traditional Peking Opera, it has created a new direction for traditional opera to attract young people. Many songs featuring Xiqiang have been trending on social media, resulting in more and more people digging deeper to learn about the traditional Peking Opera that inspired the Xiqiang. It is not a question of choosing between opera and popera, but how popera can promote Peking Opera.

In addition, the 416 Girls Group has used their music to promote other elements of traditional Chinese culture, which also helps the audience to understand the stories they tell.

Adding modern elements to traditional opera is a plausible way for the latter to develop. In the movie Full River Red, director Zhang Yimou’s historical suspense that became a box-office hit this year, a section of the background music had rock and roll elements added to a traditional Chinese opera. The segment has gone viral on Douyin, the Chinese TikTok.

While Yang, the drunk concubine, seemed destined for a sad fate, the future of the 416 Girls Group seems promising. These dans have not forgotten their bond with Peking Opera and their aspiration to make it trendy again. Their loyal audience will patiently wait for their next act.

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