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Yue Opera Town in Shengzhou: China’s new state-of-the-art hub ’embracing world theatre’

Artist's impression of the future Classical Theatre in the Yue Opera Town in Shengzhou, China Artist's impression of the future Classical Theatre in the Yue Opera Town in Shengzhou, China
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As the creation of the first cultural town featuring theatre art in China gathers pace, Kalina Stefanova examines the crucial role it will play in future artistic exchanges between the country and the rest of the world…

The creation of a whole theatre town from scratch and in the course of about two years may seem like fiction. Not in China, where architectural gems of theatres have been springing up in rapid succession – 266 in the new millennium, including the ones that have been renovated. The logical next step is now taking place in Shengzhou, a town of around a million, 372km south-west of Shanghai in Zhejiang province. It boasts 10,000 years of culture (the oldest settlement in China was there), 1,000 years of poetry, and more than 100 years of Yue opera. The latter is the key, since it’s a Yue opera town that is coming to life there.

On March 27, 1906, local rural women first performed what was to become the second most popular opera in China – out of about 360 other operas. The theatre they performed in still stands in Shenzhou. Ten of these pioneers, who became known as the ‘10 sisters’, took Yue opera to Shanghai and subsequently each developed their own school of acting.

There were some male performers in the beginning, but soon the genre became entirely a female realm where all roles are played by women, like the Japanese Takarazuka (a creation from nearly the same time), thus gaining the reputation of the ‘industry of beauty’.

In 2006, Yue opera was listed as an intangible cultural heritage of China. And it was then that the idea for the town’s creation was first put on the table. Ten years later, a groundbreaking ceremony was held, and the Shengzhou Yue Opera Town Culture and Tourism Company invested 4.5 billion yuan in the enterprise.

The flower sea at Yue Opera Town

The first cultural town featuring theatre art in China will stand on 3.68 sq km and will have as its core four theatres: classical, musical, Chinese-style theatre and a dinner venue (with a circuit restaurant for 1,000 people, a removable wall and a stage in the middle, surrounded by water). In addition, there will be about 10 small drama workshops, an artists’ village with a focus on traditional handcrafts, a film, TV and entertainment base and a Chinese opera museum. There is also a plan for developing the existing, very stylish Shenzhou Yue Opera Art School into a university for the arts.

This town will be a great opportunity to present Chinese opera to the world and to embrace world theatre’
Guo Xiaonan, Chinese Society for Opera Directing

Although none of the theatres has yet got off the ground, the first is planned to be ready by the end of the year, when the town’s first season will be launched there. The other three will open their doors for the second instalment of the season, at the end of March 2019. The plan is for everything to be completed by 2020, and a year later a fast train will run through the town, connecting it with Beijing for five hours.


China Arts and Entertainment Group profile

Location: Beijing
President: Li Jinsheng
Founded: 2004 by a merger of 12 companies, the biggest of which are China Performing Arts Agency, China International Exhibition Agency, and China Cultural International Tours Inc
Number of staff: 500 (approximately)
Funder: China State Council
Activities: More than 4,000 different kinds of performances, exhibitions and other cultural activities in more than 200 cities in dozens of countries and regions overseas, including Meet in Beijing Arts Festival, China International Chorus Festival, China International Youth Festival, Asia Arts Festival, Image China Performance Series, Happy Chinese New Year, Venice Biennale-China Pavilion, and China Art Industry Expo
Audience reach: More than 10 million in total
Original productions include: ERA-Intersection of Time, Shaolin Warriors, China Goes Pop
Silk Road International Theater Alliance: Initiated by CAEG, it has attracted 56 international organisations, theatres and cultural organisations from 21 countries as its members
Major subsidiaries: China Performing Arts Agency, China International Exhibition Agency, China Cultural International Tours Inc, CPAA Theatres
Other subsidiaries: Ticket China Co Ltd is one of the largest culture and sports event ticket sales and distribution companies in China, with branches in all major Chinese cities, and business covers most 
of the country
Key contact: Fan Jing, deputy general manager of China Cultural International Tours Inc, fanjing@caeg.cn

What is ready now is a beautiful traditional-style Chinese village and a magnificently arranged field of flowers, part of the future 67,000 sq metres four-season flower sea and plum blossom garden. Not by chance. For the head-spinning speed of this town’s construction is to serve in the end the idea of slowing down: not only by focusing on the traditional arts but also by getting back to the tradition of countryside life.

“Chinese philosophy of life is essentially peaceful,” says Guo Xiaonan, president and general manager of Shengzhou Yue Opera Culture and Tourism Company and vice-president of the Chinese Society for Opera Directing, who is seen as the foremost director of Chinese traditional theatre. “People forget this with all the modern technique and competing. In Beijing and Shanghai, what we see is busy traffic, high buildings and people living in haste. We should slow down to get a good quality life. This is an essential desire of all humans.”

So by creating an “anti-city campus”, as Guo puts it, a chance will be given equally to the Yue opera to return to its birthplace and to people to get back to the natural pace of life.

Doesn’t this mean that such an outlandish place could become more of a tourist magnet than a cultural one?

“There is a trend for a healthy fusion between culture and tourism in China,” says Fan Jing, head of the department for events at China Arts and Entertainment Group, the country’s leading international culture and entertainment enterprise, with more than 60 years of experience at home and abroad. “There are lots of cultural resources to dig into here,” she adds.

Butterfly Lovers, directed by Guo Xiaonan

At the end of March, CAEG assisted the organisation of Yue Opera Town’s first forum, where an International Theatre Town Alliance was established. “This town will be a great opportunity to present Chinese opera to the world and to embrace world theatre,” Guo said then. “It will play an important role in the future cultural exchange between China and foreign countries,” added Cui Wei, secretary general of the Chinese Theatre Association. In effect, they are both putting in their own words the essence of CEAG’s company motto: “Let China be a stage for the world and let the world be a stage for China.”

Unlike the nearby Wuzhen Theatre Festival – that was created in 2013 and quickly established itself as one of the principal international theatre festivals – Yue Opera Town will be active all year round.

The aim to build not a festival, but a place for the development of theatre and a breeding ground of art in principle, is something that will make this town unique. The season will consist of four two-week parts during the long public holidays (at the turn of the year, in March, May and October). Meanwhile, works of art will be created. “Artists are invited to establish their presence here,” says Guo, who mentions some established names from different art fields who have already accepted the invitation. “They will also train young artists.”

“The best way to preserve heritage is to develop it, to creatively transform it,” he adds. And this sums up the distinctive non-museum approach that will be essential for the running of Yue Opera Town.

Future Chinese Style Theatre of Yue Opera Town

The same will apply to its sort of ‘outpost’ – China Yue Theatre in Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province, whose state-of-the-art building, with gigantic butterfly motifs, will soon open its doors. It belongs to Baiyue Culture Creative – a joint-venture company, with Guo as an artistic director. It has already started co-producing shows domestically and overseas. Among them: Big Fish, together with Ambassador Theatre Group, and Wolf Totem, in development with the National Theatre in London.

As with Yue Opera Town, the artistic panache here is matched with the scale of investment: the Alibaba Group (one of China’s biggest companies) being one of the funding companies of Baiyue Culture Creative.

“I keep my fingers crossed for this attempted marriage between aspiring entrepreneurs and enterprising artists,” says Shen Lin, professor at the Central Academy of Drama and artistic adviser to the Yue Opera Town, wishing good luck to both endeavours.

Key facts about Chinese theatre

1. Traditional Chinese opera, or xiqu, has been in existence since the pre-Qin period. Huang Gong from the East Sea is considered to be the first mature Xiqu play. In ancient times, Chinese theatres were called ‘ge tai wu xie’ (stage and house in high places for song and dance). In 1912, a xiqu scholar Wang Guowei defined the genre as ‘yi ge wu yan gu shi’ (narrating and visualising stories through song and dance).

2. Guan Hanqing (Yuan dynasty), Tang Xianzu (Ming dynasty) and Cao Yu (also known as Wan Jiabao, in modern China) are considered the three patriarchs of Chinese drama in different phases of Chinese history.

3. In China, Western drama is called ‘spoken drama’. A presentation of an episode of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1907 is considered as its debut in the country. It is largely due to the efforts of Cao Yu that modern Chinese ‘spoken drama’ took root in the 20th century.  

4. Lei Yu (Thunderstorm), 1934, by Cao Yu, is one of the most popular Chinese dramatic works of the period prior to the Japanese invasion in 1937. It was first staged in Jinan, and later, in 1935, in Shanghai and Tokyo. In 1936, Cao Yu himself appeared in the lead role of a production of the play in Nanjing. He also wrote Beijing Ren (Peking Man) in 1941.

5. In August 2012, Rhinoceros in Love, by Liao Yimei and Meng Jinghui, described as a ‘classic drama’ of modern Chinese theatre, became the first play in the People’s Republic of China to hit 1,000 performances, in a production by the National Theatre Company of China. It has now been performed more than 2,000 times and seen by more than a million people. The play was translated into English by Mark Talacko in 2012. A new English translation by Claire Conceison was commissioned by the BBC in 2014 for a radio play broadcast and was used for the surtitles of the play’s US tour in 2017.

6. In Beijing, there are 494 theatres. The National Centre for the Performing Arts, which opened in 1958, is 60 years old this year.

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