Fading Huangpu ballads

Shanghai Star. 2003-04-24

HUJU Opera is a piece of authentic Shanghai folk culture. It originated in the folk ballads of the countryside around the Huangpu River and entered its prime during Shanghai's former heyday in the 1930s and 1940s.

But unlike the city, which moved rapidly into its present economic and cultural resurrection, the new generation of Shanghai's urban dwellers has decided to leave Huju Opera behind in the past.

The leading actors of Shanghai's Huju Opera House are still those who were famous in the 1980s. The opera house last year planned to recruit 20 new actors but only found 13.

"Huju Opera still has many fans in the suburbs, including some successful private business owners," said Chu Bocheng, an art director at the Huju Opera House. "Many of them could still sing episodes from Huju plays. They would be excited to perform an episode with Huju stars like Mao Shanyu," he said.

"But even these fans would not send their children to become Huju singers. They'd rather donate some money."

The reason lies in the low economic return to be made from the profession today, as well as the hardship involved in training to perform Huju.

"They are likely to achieve greater popularity and make more money if they become movie or television actors," Chu said.

And the audience today is mainly elderly people from the city and the nearby countryside. Unlike Peking Opera, which became a national art form whose plots are known throughout the country, Huju Opera's audience is limited to Shanghai and the surrounding region.

"It's mainly because of the accent. Huju Opera uses Shanghai dialect which is only recognizable to residents of the Yangtze River delta," Chu said.

Yueju Opera, another folk dramatic form popular in the lower reaches of the Yangtze River and which has a considerable number of fans nationwide, is sung with a southern accent but is in Mandarin, making it more understandable to non-locals.

But the southern accent is one of the major characteristics of the opera and is unlikely to be altered to gain a larger audience. "The unique charm of the southern-style music goes well with the accent," Chu said.

Contemporary stories

Another unique characteristic of Huju Opera is that it tells contemporary stories. It is the only one of the more than 300 folk opera forms in China whose major repertoire consists of modern stories. This aspect is closely related to the history of the art form.

Huju Opera, with its roots in the folk lore of the Huangpu River region, developed into a two-person show, with singers playing their own musical instruments. Then gradually the musical accompaniment and singing separated and it became an opera form. From its very beginning, the operas told contemporary stories.

The oldest plays of Huju Opera tell stories of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). This made it impossible for Huju Opera to adopt the highly dramatic costumes and make-up used in Peking Opera, which tells stories and legends from hundreds and even thousands of years ago.

Some classics of Huju Opera are still performed nowadays. One tells of the harm of gambling with the tale of a gambler who loses all his property and even his wife. Another tells the story of an old man deserted by his unfilial daughters and which has some similarity to Shakespeare's "King Lear".

Huju Opera became an established art form in the 1930s, landing on the stages of the Great World and other theatres. It absorbed many elements from movies and drama in stage design, lighting and dramatic expression. Lots of contemporary authors' works were adapted to Huju Opera plays.

A unique feature of Huju Opera is that the plays are about contemporary news stories: the suicide of Ruan Lingyu, a movie actress or the execution of Yang Ruisheng, a wealthy heir-turned killer of prostitutes.

One of the plays still staged today is the love story between the daughter of a rich family and a servant boy. The play was adapted from a breaking legal case of the time. The Huang family had sued Lu Ronggen, a former servant, for abducting their young daughter, Huang Huiru. But the girl confessed her love for Lu in court and said she had escaped from home to avoid an arranged marriage.

Shanghai's multi-national influences were also reflected in Huju Opera. Western classics such as "Romeo and Juliet" were given a Chinese context and popular movies from the 1940s such as "Waterloo Bridge" also received a Huju treatment.

It was also in the early 1940s that the name "Huju" started to be used. Before then, it had come to called "Shen Qu" (Shanghai Ballad). Also in this period, Huju gained a reputation for its novel costume, and was called, "Opera with Western suit and Cheong-sam".

Move with the times

After liberation in 1949, the Chinese government paid a lot of attention to Huju, using it as a propaganda tool. New plays were written and staged telling of the revolutionary work of the Communists. Two of them were adapted for Peking Opera and became part of the eight "Model Plays" before the "cultural revolution" (1966-76).

In the 1980s, a TV series of Huju Opera was produced which told the life story of a movie star of old Shanghai, Zhou Xuan. The heroine, Mao Shanyu, became a household name nationwide.

Mao became the director of Shanghai Huju Opera House last year. She also starred in a successful run of a new play, "Shiliu Qunxia" (Under the Crimson Skirt), last year.

But a lack of good new plays has become a major problem and is hampering the development of the opera form. "Unlike other folk operas, Huju Opera has to reflect real life. New works are vital," Chu said.

"The opera has to move with the times. But good plays are rare and so is the younger generation of dramatists."

Copyright by Shanghai Star.