The legend of Madam White Snake can be dated back to ancient times. It is one of the four folk legends of love in
and is known to everyone. But have you ever watched the Sichuan opera version of Madam White Snake?
On the evening of April 28, 2018, the Sichuan Opera Madam White Snake is being performed by a number of Chongqing University students “born after 1995” at Huxi Campus of Chongqing University. This performance is also directed by a student independently. There are no empty seats in this theater with capacity of nearly 1,000 persons. The students have spent 1 year preparation for the Sichuan opera against various difficulties: performers injured, insufficient professional skills, and the fact that they have to make props and costumes and do facial make-up on their own.
What makes the students so fond of traditional Chinese operas other than computer games? What are traditional cultural arts for those students “born after 1995”?
“Move the spotlight leftwards a bit. The gongs and drums should be louder. The microphone reverberation should be adjusted…” On the afternoon of April 26, the performers and staff members of the Sichuan Opera Madam White Snake are doing the rehearsal in the theater of Huxi Campus, Chongqing University. Wei Yuan, a first-year postgraduate of the Meishi Film Academy of Chongqing University and director of the Sichuan Opera Madam White Snake is acting as the onsite commander.
Sichuan Opera Madam White Snake is the result of 3 teams of more than 80 persons called together by Wei Yuan. The 3 teams are respectively Youlan Traditional Chinese Opera Club, the Department of Dancing of the School of Arts, and the Traditional Instrument Orchestra of the Art Troupe.
Sichuan Opera Madam White Snake is derived from the Madam White Snake Permanently Suppressed under the Leifeng Pagoda of the Ordinary Words to Warn the World by Feng Menglong of the Ming dynasty. Different from the traditional version of the story with which everyone is familiar, Sichuan Opera Madam White Snake lays the emphasis on the complicated connections between the Madam White Snake, Xiaoqing and Xu Xian in the previous and present life.
Why this opera? It is reported that Wei Yuan came up with the idea of creating the CQU version of Madam White Snake in 2010 when he was still an undergraduate student at the School of Bio-engineering of Chongqing University. As the founder and the first president of Youlan Traditional Chinese Opera Club, Wei Yuan has been growing more interested in Sichuan opera these years. “Sichuan opera is a critical part of outstanding Chinese traditional culture. Given well-designed style and content, Sichuan opera would regain audiences.”
At the end of 2016, Chongqing University was approved to set up the “Sichuan Opera Culture Inheritance and Protection Base” under the Ministry of Education, which has provided support for Sichuan Opera Madam White Snake in terms of fund and premise. Besides, the basic skills of the Club members have improved a lot. In May 2017, Wei Yuan put the Sichuan Opera Madam White Snake on agenda again and started to recruit performers on the campus.
Singing, acting, recitation and acrobatics, tripping, and somersault
The difference does not only lie in plots. The Sichuan Opera Madam White Snake differs from the traditional TV version in many different ways. For example, Xiaoqing in the Sichuan opera version is performed alternatively by a female performer and a male performer. When it comes to singing part, Xiaoqing is performed by a female performer; when it comes to martial part, Xiaoqing is performed by a male performer.
Furthermore, the leading female role Bai Suzhen is alternatively performed by 3 performers. The opera lasts 2 hours, and it is therefore impossible for a single performer to sing and do acrobatics throughout the performance. The three female performers would come on the stage in different sessions based on their characteristics. Deng Manling, a fourth-year student of the School of Arts, Chongqing University, majoring in music performance and one of the three female performers will do the singing part in the performance.
It excites Deng Manling to be able to take part in the Sichuan Opera Madam White Snake. Since Deng got to know Sichuan opera in her senior high school years, she has been fond of Sichuan opera for years. Deng Manling also learned from professional performers of the Sichuan opera troupes and decided to major in music performance in the university.
However, Deng really had a tough time before she became the leading role of the Sichuan Opera Madam White Snake. Every time of modeling, her head had to be “bundled up”. “Before wearing the headwear, they would bundle up my hair with ‘a jack’ to lift my eyes up and make me look energetic.” Deng Manling complains that she easily gets dizzied when her head is “bundled up”. Years ago, when she was about to perform the Drunken Concubine, she got dizzied and vomited immediately after her head was bundled up. However, she managed to finish the performance as well.
The martial part, which is very difficult and intense, is one of the highlight. Though some performers major in dancing and have basic dancing skills, they would still stumble or make mistakes in martial rehearsals.
Tang Xue’er, a third-year student majoring in dance performance of Chongqing University, does the martial part of Bai Suzhen. This is in fact her first acquaintance with Sichuan opera. Thanks to her professional expertise, Tang quickly got adapted to the difficult and intensity of the acrobatic movements. Anyhow she would get injured. “Once I fell onto the floor when I was practicing lifting and my caudal vertebra ached for 2 months. Every time I fall over I have to stand up immediately and go on, so as not to cause trouble to other performers.”
Li Dongliang, the performer of Wang Daoling, the “frog spirit”, is a first-year postgraduate of the School of Power Engineering. Since the start of rehearsal, his waist has been getting “slimmer and slimmer”. In an opponent play with Bai Suzhen, he would be “hung up and beaten” by Bai Suzhen, with his waist lifted by a two-finger-wide belt for half a minute. During this time, he has to make some acrobatic movements and his belly would turn red after every rehearsal.
These are not the only difficulties they have encountered. What really knocked Director Wei Yuan down was that almost half of costumes, make-up and props workers resigned during the period from start of preparation to the first performance. “The backstage workers have to arrive earlier than others and leave later than others and they cannot appear on the stage. As the date of performance was drawing near, half of the backstage workers resigned. So we had to recruit backstage workers. Some performers also quitted for various reasons.” Wei Yuan says frankly that the performers are unpaid and they take part only because they love Sichuan opera.
Wei Yuan adds that: “The performers feel satisfied when they notice that they are making progress and getting better. We have a shared goal to make out a Sichuan version of Madam White Snake of Chongqing University and of undergraduates.”
Performers making props and costumes as guided by professional troupes of Sichuan and Chongqing
The creators of CQU version of Madam White Snake are not professors. Half of them are boys of engineering discipline.
Director Wei Yuan obtained his bachelor’s degree at the School of Bio-engineering of Chongqing University. As a “crazy fan” of Sichuan opera, he founded Youlan Traditional Chinese Opera Club immediately after he entered the University. After that, more and more male students joined the Club.
Wei Yuan says that though the male students of engineering discipline do not have professional basic skills, they are good at comprehension and logic, and have considerable manipulative ability. Limited by the funds, some of the costumes and props were made by the male students, such as the bed curtain, lucid ganoderma, and wine set. Those articles made by students look rather vivid. The splendid Sichuan opera helmet worn by the leading role was made by Qiu Suyang, a postgraduate of 2016 of the School of Arts.
The neither performers nor staff members have received professional training. At the beginning, the Sichuan opera version of Madam White Snake seemed impossible. Despite the drawbacks, Wei Yuan read a lot of professional books and spared time to watch operas and communicate with professional performers at theaters. Besides, he invited masters of Sichuan opera troupes from Chongqing and Sichuan to provide professional guide.
“I would let the performers to get familiar with the lines at first and then I will ask them to do the opponent play rehearsal. I would make the outline of the plots clear to every performer at first and then tell each performer what he/she should do, so as to be more efficient,” says Wei Yuan.
To ensure the first performance is put on successfully at the end of April, the entire group stayed on the campus in the winter holiday to do the rehearsal in 2017. This semester, the performers are seen doing rehearsal in the theater of the University almost every day. Wei Yuan proposed a requirement for the opera at the beginning that: “The campus opera must be appealing enough to the audience. This is what makes a Sichuan opera successful.” As such, Wei Yuan requires the performers to be as professional as possible, so as to bring audio and visual enjoyment to audiences.
Where there is a will there is a way. Many opera fans rushed to buy tickets immediately after the first performance was announced. The nearly 1,000 tickets for the first performance sold out very soon.
Know more: What should we do to make the “Sichuan Opera Culture Inheritance and Protection Base” better as the only one of its kind in colleges and universities throughout China?
The birth of Sichuan opera Madam White Snake should be attributable to the “Sichuan Opera Culture Inheritance and Protection Base” under the Ministry of Education being constructed by Chongqing University. It is reported that Chongqing University has been attaching importance to art education and esthetic education, in particular the educating and nurturing effect of outstanding traditional Chinese culture on young students. “Sichuan Opera Culture Inheritance and Protection Base” is the only one of the first 16 inheritance bases of outstanding traditional Chinese culture in colleges and universities of China that undertakes inheritance and protection of Sichuan opera.
Peng Jixiang, managing vice president of Meishi Film Academy of Chongqing University, says that as for inheritance and protection of Sichuan opera culture, Chongqing University is offering related high-quality courses throughout the University, such as general-knowledge art-culture course of Sichuan opera. Furthermore, the University is also offering practical fundamental courses of Sichuan opera, including shape-up exercise and posture and performance, to allow students to understand the essence of Sichuan opera. In addition, with club construction as the platform, the University has created an encouraging atmosphere for students to learn and experience the art and culture of Sichuan opera. The University has also set up the Sichuan Opera Art Workshop, at which the students will be taught some simple Sichuan opera sections. Shen Tiemei, and other well-known artists of Sichuan opera have been invited to give lectures, in an effort to arouse students’ interest in Sichuan opera and allow them to have perceptual knowledge if Sichuan opera art.
In the future, Chongqing University will build a scientific research think tank for inheritance and protection of art and culture of Sichuan opera. The Southwest Protective Research Center for Intangible Cultural Heritage of Chongqing University has made considerable achievements in protection and inheritance of Sichuan opera culture. Peng Jixiang adds that in the future, Chongqing University will concentrate efforts on improvement of the overall level of the Center in terms of theoretical research, heritage protection, and cultural inheritance, and will build the Center into a core scientific research institute of protection and inheritance of Sichuan opera culture in China.
It is reported that Chongqing University has finished the production of cartoon CD for popularization of Sichuan opera and will promote the CD among primary schools, middle schools and colleges and universities in Chongqing. The ultimate goal is to popularize the essence of Sichuan opera culture among the primary school students, middle school students, college students and the whole society in an easily understood manner. The coverage will be extended to southwest China and the entire China in the future.