Li Shaogang, Champion of Folk Operas

In the late 1990s, as Li approached his 30s, he began to rethink his purpose in life. “I had been to many places and experienced different cultures and customs. We have some special traditions in Heyang too, but how could we share them outside the region?” Then, Li remembered his grandfather’s unpublished manuscripts. “My grandpa spent half his life collecting and cataloguing Heyang culture without publishing anything. I wanted to carry on his vocation.”

In 2000, Li Shaogang began combing through his grandfather’s notes. In the process, he acquired new insights into local operas.

“When I was little, I could barely understand the opera librettos, and so struggled to grasp the storyline. By reading and editing my grandfather’s manuscripts, I was drawn into the historical and literary backgrounds of the plays. This is the charm of traditional culture: you have to really understand it before you can appreciate it,” Li said.

Li’s studies attracted attention in 2003, when Xi’an Film Studio came to Heyang to shoot the String Opera classic Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai, a tragic love story known as China’s Romeo and Juliet.

“Everyone knows of Qinqiang, the predominant native opera in Shaanxi Province, but few have heard of the String Opera, which is only found in Heyang. The director was also unfamiliar; he couldn’t tell if the players were singing correctly or not. I was on the scene, so volunteered to offer help,” Li so described his directorial debut.

“The actors and actresses, all local farmers, were very nervous in front of the cameras. I told them that there was nothing to worry about, just try to sing well.”

This first experiment encouraged Li to start teaching people to perform and to write plays.

Hop Opera originated as a form of self-entertainment for rural residents during the winter months. When there was no work in the fields, farmers got together to plan and rehearse the performances. Everyone knows only their own part, which they learn orally. The choreography is rough and repetitive, accompanied by loud percussion instruments like gongs and drums.

In 2009 Heyang Hop Opera was selected for the Shaanxi Cultural Week performance at the Shanghai World Expo. Li Shaogang was appointed to oversee the troupe, whose members were all amateur artists.

The first thing he did for the preparation was to write a six-minute play and prepare a dance routine. “A full length play lasts several hours and is sung in the local dialect, which is difficult for people out of the province,” Li explained, believing that the length would wear out spectators. He hoped that in those six minutes audiences would get to see the main dance steps of the folk opera with some roles and a tighter performance.

Li discussed it with the troupe members, but they didn’t buy the idea. “They said that I had never performed it myself, and doubted if I understood the art at all.”

At his insistance, these farmer actors and actresses finally agreed, and learned new dance moves at the instruction of senior performers Li invited.

Their performance was well received at the Shanghai Expo, and the short play has become the troupe’s main routine.

In the following years, Li spent his time writing scripts and making modifications to the local opera. These were all free, as Li hopes to introduce Heyang Hop Opera to the widest audience possible. Many people, including the two graduate students from Nanjing University, discovered the folk art through Li’s postings to social media.

“To preserve traditional operas, having people see it is a must. People are only willing to perform if there is a market and an audience. When there were not many choices and life was dull, people would watch whatever performance was available, all night long. But now there is so much. Young people can access any entertainment they want through the Internet, and older people stay home watching TV. Hop Opera, with its limited movements and lengthy performances is not so attractive anymore. To make it thrive, it needs to catch up with the times,” Li said.

In Xingjiazhuang, birthplace of Hop Opera, Li watched a performance by some senior villagers with the local Hop Opera association’s chair Li Minsheng in the audience. These artists’ simple, free movements and hoarse singing, accompanied by drum and gong beats, were astonishing to all present.

After the performance, Li proposed to record the libretto of the troupe’s entire repertoire. As oral teachings are declining, he hopes future generations use his recordings to perpetuate this performance art. Li also reiterated the importance of reducing repetition and making performances shorter. Li Minsheng, the association head, nodded in approval, but two elder performers disagreed: “The Hop Opera has been like this for thousands of years. If we change it, can we still call it Hop Opera?”

Sticking to his guns, Li said: “These performers have rigid concepts in their old age. It will take time to change, but facts and time will tell. I believe that one day I will talk them into my proposal.”

Asked why he was so persistent, Li answered without hesitation: “I like these art forms, so I want people to understand them and love them too. I also hope to give these folk artists a platform to present themselves to the wider world. This’s why I founded a Hop Opera organization.”


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