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Ancient operas brim with new vitality in the hometown of Nanxi Opera
Date:2023-03-07 10:46:17 Source:Wenzhou·China Fonts:[ Large Medium Small ]

The opening ceremony of the “Nanxi Opera Goes Global” activity.

A dialogue between tradition and modernity through Nanxi Opera.

On the lunar New Year’s Day of the Year of the Rabbit, the 2023 CCTV Spring Festival Gala of Chinese Opera was on the air as scheduled. On the screen, the literati made tea and admired lanterns while chanting and writing poetry, a scene that resembled how talented dramatists from Jiushan Association of Dramatists composed the masterpiece of The Number One Scholar Zhang Xie that marked the advent of Chinese opera history. An encounter with the audience that crossed a thousand years thus came into being.

For the first time in its 33-year history, the CCTV Spring Festival Gala of Chinese Opera was staged outdoors. Wenzhou, the birthplace of Nanxi Opera - the earliest mature form of opera in Chinese history, was chosen as the destination to record the Gala, and Jiushan Association of Dramatists, where the earliest extant and complete opera script The Number One Scholar Zhang Xie was written, was designated as the main stage. A scene of prosperity and grandeur in history was brought back to life.

Wenzhou - the birthplace of Nanxi Opera

As a fertile ground of opera, Zhejiang is known as a province that houses half of Chinese opera throughout history. The complete style of Chinese opera and “ancestor of Chinese opera” - Nanxi Opera was born in Wenzhou on the east coast of Zhejiang.

Nanxi Opera was originally called “xiwen”, which means “performing drama” and is a comprehensive art of storytelling. The name “Nanxi Opera” began in the Yuan Dynasty(1271-1368), which was adopted to distinguish it from Zaju in the north, a kind of poetic drama set to music.

“Both the narrative mode of ‘storytelling through song and dance’ and the system of ‘male/female/painted-face/clownish/comic roles’ were born and established in Wenzhou. According to such an artistic pattern, the art of the opera has been practised for nearly 900 years, and this is Wenzhou’s contribution to Chinese opera,” commented Chi Jun, an expert in opera.

At the beginning of the Southern Song Dynasty(1127-1279), the opening of foreign trade ports propelled Wenzhou into “the most bustling city second only to Hangzhou”, laying the economic foundation for the birth and growth of Nanxi Opera in Wenzhou.

Along with the economic boom, folk artists in the entertainment industry flocked from the surrounding areas into the city to form folk groups, giving birth to groups such as the Jiushan Association of Dramatists, who could perform opera and compose dramas at the same time. The Number One Scholar Zhang Xie they produced was the earliest surviving complete work and a living fossil of Nanxi Opera.

At the end of the Yuan Dynasty, the Rui’an native Gao Zecheng wrote The Story of the Lute, a play based on the long-running folk opera Zhao Zhennyu and Cai Erlang. With its forty-two stanzas, the play is cleverly structured in elegant and expressive language, demonstrating the considerable insight and skill of the literati, and greatly enhancing the literary standard of the Nanxi Opera script. As a result, it is also known as the “ancestor of Nanxi Opera”. The Four Masterpieces of Nanxi Opera comprise The Thorn Hairpin, The Book of the White Rabbit, The Kiosk of Worshiping the Moon and The Killing of the Dog, which were written in the Yuan Dynasty and were widely disseminated during the Ming and Qing dynasties with far-reaching effects.

Nanxi Opera arose, grew and matured in Wenzhou. Since the mid to late Southern Song Dynasty, it gradually spread northwards to Hangzhou, westwards to Jiangxi, and southwards to Quanzhou, Zhangzhou and Putian in Fujian, and Chaozhou in Guangdong. These areas later became the front and center for the development of Nanxi Opera. Near Hangzhou, the Haiyan and Yuyao operas arose, and eventually the Kunshan Opera was derived; in Jiangxi, the Yiyang Opera was developed; and in Fujian, the area with numerous surviving works of Nanxi Opera, many of the Nanxi Opera repertoire and performance characteristics remain today in ancient local operas such as Liyuan Opera, Puxian Opera and Gaojia Opera.

Although Nanxi Opera was once consigned to oblivion in history, it staged a comeback in the 1980s when Wenzhou set up the Nanxi Opera Research Group. In 1997, Wenzhou launched the “Nanxi Opera New Series Project”, and in 2007, Nanxi Opera was listed as an intangible cultural heritage project of Zhejiang Province. Then, a large number of new Nanxi Opera works were performed on the stage and Nanxi Opera was once again brimming with charm.

Nanxi Opera nurtures local operas

The cultural gene of Nanxi Opera permeates the history of Chinese opera and nourishes local opera in Wenzhou, giving rise to a situation in which dozens of local operas vie for attention.

To this day, active on the stage in Wenzhou are miscellaneous operas inextricably linked to Nanxi Opera, including the ancient Wenzhou Opera and Yongjia Kunqu Opera, the major operas such as Beijing Opera and Shaoxing Opera, the distinctive Pingyang puppet play, as well as Pingyang Heju Opera, Rui’an Gaoqiang and Luantan.

In the Wenzhou Opera The Killing of the Dog, some original styles of opera were presented. When the curtain rose, the musicians took their seats on stage, after whom the clown appeared to give opening remarks, set the decor of the stage and cut in with quips and jokes. During the play, the musicians also played a part as the neighborhood.

In 2019, the revival of The Killing of the Dog turned to be a blockbuster. Opera experts lauded it to the sky that it was crystallization of ancient style, folk wisdom and “spirit of the game”, and was the best of comedy. In 2021, the Wenzhou Opera The Number One Scholar Zhang Xie, also adapted from an ancient Nanxi Opera text, traced the original style of Nanxi Opera and incorporated modern ideas in the performance to keep with modern aesthetic needs.

Both The Killing of the Dog and The Number One Scholar Zhang Xie are not traditional Wenzhou Opera plays, but their subtle adaptation shapes them into “amusing” “antique masterpieces”, embodying the wisdom of Wenzhou people and the charm of ancient art. Despite the absence of witnesses and video footage of Nanxi Opera, the performance offers a glimpse of what the opera might have looked like 900 years ago.

In 1997, Zhang Sicong, a famous playwright, started to adapt the Shaoxing Opera work The Thorn Hairpin. His adaptation, since its release, has been performed more than a thousand times and won almost all the awards in the domestic theatre industry, for which he was awarded the Cao Yu Prize for Drama and Literature, the highest award for drama writing in China. Statistics show that more than 20 versions of The Thorn Hairpin have been rehearsed in different genres based on this script.

From ancient theaters scattered around the city to modern stages, there are always plays to see and stories to tell in the hometown of Nanxi Opera.

While many areas of the country are facing an “opera crisis”, Wenzhou sees a flourishing traditional theater market. The audience are being overwhelmed by performances from both state-owned and private troupes. According to incomplete statistics, Wenzhou has more than 150 private theaters on the register and more than 4,000 opera societies. They perform not only in Wenzhou, but also in Taizhou and Lishui in Zhejiang and other provinces like Fujian, offering the most diverse plays in Zhejiang Province.

Given that talent is the key for the development of the opera, Wenzhou cultural departments have been synergically engaged in the training of young opera talents for years. Through such measures as the opera assessment, cooperation between schools and troupes, instruction from famous artists etc., more and more young talents are benefited and stand out, and gradually grow into the backbone of the opera industry.

Integration of culture and tourism brings Nanxi Opera further

When culture nourishes Wenzhou, Wenzhou is also digging deep into its culture in the process of integrating into the Internet era. The hometown of Nanxi Opera gives cutting-edge and diverse experiences in addition to the scenic beauty.

Last year, when the crew of CCTV Traditional Opera Channel came to Wenzhou to record the program “To the Corner”, they experienced the craftsmanship of puppet play at the Yongjia Academy, listened to a song of Rui’an Guci at Zhongyi Street, and savored the poetic charm of Wenzhou through poetry in Lishui Ancient Street. In the hometown of Nanxi Opera, they gathered with theater celebrities, felt the unique glamour of Wenzhou’s Nanxi Opera culture through outdoor theater performance, and explored the profound heritage of Wenzhou’s traditional arts.

On the New Year’s Eve, the program of “To the Corner” featured 30 famous opera artists who assembled on Wenzhou’s Jiangxin Islet, presenting classical dramas in the  vibrant tableau of poetic beauty and igniting boundless imagination.

As an integral part of traditional Chinese culture, Chinese opera carries the living cultural genes of the nation and epitomizes the keen spiritual pursuit of the Chinese nation. The integration of culture and tourism provides a new platform for traditional opera, on which local opera will be well disseminated, thus bringing itself from the margins of popular entertainment to the public eye.

Over the years, to further promote the cultural brand of “the hometown of Nanxi Opera”, Wenzhou has continued the “Nanxi Opera New Series Project” and curated a host of activities of “finding the roots of Chinese opera”. By exploring Wenzhou’s geographical names in Nanxi Opera, it set up cultural logos of Nanxi Opera. Besides, it has done a good job in protecting and imparting local opera genres such as Yongjia Kunqu Opera, Rui’an Gaoqiang, Wenzhou Opera and Pingyang Heju Opera.

In the Jiushan Association of Dramatists where the 2023 CCTV Spring Festival Gala of Chinese Opera was recorded, a new wave of Nanxi Opera performances has already commenced. Numerous forms will be adopted to enrich Nanxi Opera Cultural Park, including permanent exhibitions, regular lectures, salons and performances. By presenting physically the “Nanxi Opera” elements in the Gala and organizing Nanxi Opera performances on a regular basis, the Nanxi Opera Cultural Park will be molded into a net-famous destination for tracing and experiencing Chinese operas and cultivating aesthetic sensibility.

It is a new try for CCTV Spring Festival Gala of Chinese Opera to leave the studio for the outdoor landscape. For Wenzhou, this event is an authoritative testimony to Wenzhou’s status as the birthplace of Nanxi Opera which is the origin of Chinese opera. Along with the significant archaeological discovery of Shuomen Ancient Port, it showcases the millennial cultural heritage of Wenzhou across a broad spectrum.