Peking Opera: Star power

Updated: 2015-09-02 11:09

By Li Jing in New York(China Daily USA)

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 Peking Opera: Star power

Peking Opera star Zhang Huoding (right) plays Bai Suzhen in The Legend of the White Snake, with Zhang Yao as Xu Xian. They attended a press conference on Tuesday at Lincoln Center in New York following a dress rehearsal. Li Jing / China Daily

Zhang Huoding takes New York by storm in The Legend of the White Snake at Lincoln Center

Just as they do for all her shows in China, tickets for Zhang Huoding's debut performances in the United States are selling strong.

"It's almost sold out and many orders are from local Americans, judging from the booking names," said Mu Wen of the China Performing Arts Agency, co-organizer with China's National Academy Of China Theatre Arts of Zhang's premier shows at Lincoln Center in New York.

On Wednesday and Thursday nights, Zhang, one of China's biggest Peking Opera stars, will present two Peking Opera classics at the David H. Koch Theater: The Legend of the White Snake, about a love affair between a female snake and a man that is challenged by a Buddhist monk, and The Jewelry Pouch, the tale of a wealthy but generous young woman who falls on hard times.

While The Legend of the White Snake is one of many new operas Zhang initiated and created with the School of Cheng, The Jewelry Pouch is a classic that showcases the artistic traditions the school.

Still dressed in costume for her signature role as the white snake, Bai Suzhen, 44-year-old Zhang said after a Tuesday rehearsal, "I am excited to be giving American audiences a glimpse of the Cheng School style of Peking Opera."

Cheng School is one four major Peking Opera styles that emerged in the early 20th century. Zhang started to learn it in 1989 with one of the opera world's most accomplished performers, Zhao Rongchen (1916-96), and is now the leading representative of the school.

Zhang once said she was particularly fond of the role of Bai Suzhen, a personified snake spirit married to Xu Xian, a human.

"I was attracted to the role of Bai. She is crazy about love," said Zhang, who performed the work for the first time in 2000 when she was with the China National Peking Opera Company. "The classic contains a tragic love story and lots of martial arts, so I think American audiences will like it."

It has been Zhang's dream for years to present the finest of traditional Chinese art in New York. "For the New York shows, we have rehearsed for three months," she said.

Media reports compare Zhang's appearance in New York with 1930, when one of Peking Opera's greatest stars, Mei Lanfang (1894-1961), performed in New York. Like now, there was a sense then that Chinese traditional opera could translate overseas and even influence the global art scene.

"The shows today are paying tribute to Mei. We expect to bring the American audience a refreshing idea of Peking Opera and its development," said Zhang Yao, who, like Zhang, is a professor at the National Academy of Theater Arts and co-stars in the leading role of Xu Xian in White Snake (after the planned player of the role had visa problems).

Peking Opera: Star power

Zhang, who now spends much of her time teaching at the National Academy of Chinese Theater Arts in Beijing, sees her New York appearances as a way to promote and preserve an exquisite art form that is unlike anything else in the world of performing arts.

Prior to the performances, there will be lectures by David Der-wei Wang of Harvard and David Rolston of the University of Michigan to give the audience a sense of the origins and development of Peking Opera and point out the highlights of each show.

"We have also invited Chinese and English-speaking Peking Opera specialists to do the subtitles to help foreigner audiences understand it better," said Fu Jin, a professor at the National Academy of Chinese Theater Arts.

"Admittedly, there are cultural and language differences between the two countries, but we will not lower the artistic quality to make it easier for foreign audiences," Fu said. "I believe Zhang will carry on the legacy by displaying the charm of Peking Opera to American audiences."

National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts director Batu said, Zhang is now at the height of her artistic career with her deep vocal intonations and graceful displays of martial arts.

"The shows aim to present the top artists on the world stage. The performances in New York are just the beginning and we will roll out a 10-year plan to make the finest of Chinese traditional arts go global."

He added that even though the shows sold well in New York, they have no plans to add more, in part to guarantee the quality of the performances.