Published: 15:10, June 18, 2024
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Yuju Opera production set for Avignon Festival stage
By Cheng Yuezhu

Three works to be presented at event will highlight discipline and grace of format to international audiences, Cheng Yuezhu reports.

Wu Suzhen plays the role of a young woman in love in the Yuju Opera production Shi Yuzhuo (Picking up the Jade Bracelet). (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

As an award-winning performer of Yuju Opera, a style of traditional Chinese opera prevalent in Henan province, Wu Suzhen specializes in the role of qingyi — dignified female characters who often exude elegance and maturity.

In the classic production Yuzhou Feng (The Cosmic Sword), however, she departs from her usual graceful demeanor, as the story depicts a woman in ancient times who feigns madness to avoid being taken as a concubine by the emperor.

It takes a great deal of nuance to portray this character, apart from exaggerated gestures and farcical lines, according to Wu. In one scene where the protagonist turns her head three times, she needs to convey different expressions and emotions with each turn — from signs of derangement, to genuine grief and indignation.

This is among the creative designs of Yuju Opera master Chen Suzhen (1918-1994), who made innovations and developed an artistic style known for its elegance, authenticity and subtlety, named as the Chen School of Yuju Opera.

Now an inheritor of the Chen School, Wu Suzhen, who in 2019 won the Plum Performance Award, China's top honor for traditional Chinese theatrical art, is soon to bring her Suzhen Theater, based in Kaifeng, Henan province, to this year's Avignon Festival in France.

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Yuzhou Feng is one of three Yuju Opera productions to be staged at the festival, along with Shi Yuzhuo (Picking up the Jade Bracelet), and Fanwang Gong (Palace of Brahma).

"These are all classic Chen School productions. Yuzhou Feng was the first piece I learned after joining the Chen School, and until this day, I still feel that it is so difficult to perform," she says.

"I prefer characters with distinctive personalities. The characters in these three plays are very different from each other, yet all three productions highlight expressive movements, which make them fitting choices to present to international audiences."

In Yuzhou Feng (The Cosmic Sword), Wu plays a woman feigning madness. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

This year, the festival runs from June 29 to July 21. Suzhen Theater will perform from July 3 until the end of the festival, presenting 38 stage and outdoor performances.

As 2024 marks the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between China and France, as well as the China-France Year of Culture and Tourism, Suzhen Theater's performance series has been included in the cultural exchange events taking place throughout the year in the two countries.

"These performances are very meaningful in that they center on Yuju Opera, a specific style of traditional Chinese opera, and almost span the entirety of the Avignon Festival," says Wang Lu, general manager of the China Performing Arts Agency, a co-organizer of the performances.

"Every July, theater lovers from around the world gather at the festival, which means that these Yuju productions will face international audiences daily, enhancing their influence and reach."

Last year, as a field trip to research the venues and to gauge the French audience's response, Suzhen Theater performed a Yuju Opera excerpt as an opening act in Avignon.

As Wu recalls, despite the cultural and language barriers, they were met with warm applause and positive feedback. After the performance, audience members came up to them, complimenting them on the makeup and costumes, and pointing out details of her performance, such as the way her eyes shifted in different directions, which boosted the troupe members' confidence in staging full productions in France.

"When it comes to a foreign art form, audiences may not be familiar with the format or the language, but they'll appreciate its beauty and be willing to attend the performances," Wu says.

"We'll be sure to refine the performances and present more polished shows to the audiences of the Avignon Festival."

Wu is a veteran Yuju Opera performer who won the Plum Performance Award in 2019. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Despite the long distance, the troupe members plan to transport all of their original props and set pieces to France. The chairs, for example, cannot be easily replaced, because those used in Yuju Opera are meticulously designed so that the sitting postures of different characters can reflect their personalities.

"We don't want to compromise when it comes to the stage sets. We must bring the authentic props and present the same effect as on the domestic stage," Wu says.

"These works are the lifelong legacy of traditional Chinese opera masters. They have been performed onstage and refined over and over again. This allows them to be recognized by the audiences. We'll try our best to convey the charm of traditional Chinese opera to international audiences."

Born in 1977 in Zhumadian, Henan province, Wu grew fond of Yuju Opera during her childhood while watching performances with her grandmother. At the age of 12, she joined a local troupe, where she learned and performed a wide range of roles.

Having established herself as a seasoned performer, she enrolled in the National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts in 2009, when the academy first introduced its Yuju Opera bachelor's program. There, she studied under the guidance of Yuju Opera artist Niu Shuxian, a student of Chen Suzhen, and was later recognized by Niu as an inheritor of the Chen School.

"I consider myself a very diligent person. Whether performing for a small audience or in an outdoor performance in rural areas, I have developed the habit of taking each performance very seriously. Although it can be tiring performing the same piece over and over again, it is essential to present a fresh perspective for the audience."

Wu and her Suzhen Theater are taking three Yuju Opera productions, including Fanwang Gong (The Palace of Brahma), to this year's Avignon Festival in France. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

During the troupe's visit to France, Wu will share her Yuju Opera expertise through two lectures. The first will be hosted on June 30 at the China Cultural Center in Paris and the second will take place during the festival. In these sessions, she will introduce Yuju Opera makeup, costumes and acting techniques by combining lecture with live demonstrations.

"In my initial vision, I'll be seated onstage before the lectures begin, with my makeup on. As the audience members arrive, I'll attach hair extensions, put on the headpieces, and finally don the costumes piece by piece," Wu says.

This way, the audience will have the chance to witness the elaborate preparations of Chinese opera performers before each performance. Along with support from other troupe members, Wu will introduce and demonstrate the four fundamental skills of Chinese opera — singing, speaking, acting and martial arts.

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The lectures will also incorporate interactive elements and Q&A sessions, allowing the audience members to ask questions or join her on stage to learn the movements.

"One of the great charms of traditional Chinese opera is that it requires performers with in-depth and comprehensive skills. Yuju Opera in particular, has been passed down through time and continues to evolve, which allows it to enjoy a wide, dedicated audience today," Wang says.

"As a representative of the Chen School, Wu is an admirable artist dedicated to perfecting her craft, and who is firmly committed to preserving and passing down the art form. With the upcoming performances, she is bringing Chinese culture onto an international stage.

"Hopefully, the audiences will develop an interest in traditional Chinese opera and want to explore it further."

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