Opera is a form of lyrical theatre. A play on music. Actors singing. Loudly, on strong notes, narrating their love stories with orchestra and elegant lighting. And, of course, the adorned clothing, the drama and the laughter… All sounds entertaining but with all that rollercoaster art went down on, some will ask who buys tickets to opera nowadays? Well, there are quite a lot of them. And this is both due to the enchantment brought to few of us by the intellectual artistic expressions and forms of art and, also, due to the artists effort to bring opera closer to the spirit of our times. Therefore, opera is now a form of performing stories in a colored mélange of old and new and I understood this well when I came into contact with Shen Tiemei, “Queen of the Sichuan Opera”. As a three-time winner of the Chinese Drama Plum Blossom Award, the highest national performing arts award, she has a complex artistic trajectory. Born into a theatre family, she studied at Chuanju Opera Master Bi Hua, becoming the most famous Chuanju Opera actress in China. Her masterpiece includes modern plays “Jinzi”, “Li Yaxian”, “Fengyi Pavilion”, “Peacock Hallbladder”, “Yu Jing Han” and “Lady of a Fierce and Ambitous Person”.
She is not only devoted to inherit the tradition of Chunaju Opera, but also carries it forward and innovates it. Under her direction, the traditional art of Chuanju Opera is able to revive in a modern cultural environment as she is committed to the idea that innovation must have its roots into fine traditions.
First, it would be interesting for the people of Sibiu, and not only for them, to know more about the Sichuan Opera. How would you describe this universe to someone who has never heard of it?
Shen Tiemei: There are over 300 different forms of local theatre in China, and Sichuan Opera is one of the largest. Its history is 300 years old. It can be described as performing stories through singing and dancing. A feature of Chuanju Opera is that it appeals to both refined and popular tastes, or we can say that it can be enjoyed by both highbrows and lowbrows. The means of expression and artistic approaches are unique and intelligent.
The most distinctive artistic approach of the Chuanju Opera is that it usually deals with a tragedy in a comic way, or it plays a comedy in a tragic way. “Romantic” and “funny” are the essential words that describe many productions of Chuanju Opera. Another characteristic of Chuanju is its “Gao Qiang”- the high pitched singing part which is often accompanied by percussion only, “Tu Ge” – the high pitched singing part which has no accompaniment at all; and “Bang Qiang”- the singing part of a group of singers that are back stage that helps to build up the effects of the singers on stage.
Naturally, being raised by a family of opera singers helped you understand this world better. But, tell us, what were the things that touched you the most about it as a young lady?
Shen Tiemei: I have two unforgettable memories from when I was young: one was that, when I was sixteen years old, the students at our art school participated in a competition. I performed so well that I was awarded the first prize in the competition. After that, the organizer held a winners’ show. But I was very much ignored at the show, thing which had deeply hurt my feelings. I was too young to understand the reason why I was being treated like that. My father told me that this kind of injustice always happen in everyone’s life. However, “real gold will always shine”. As long as you have the talent, sooner or later, the audience will recognize you, and the experts will recognize you. There’s one more thing that I cannot forget. There was one time when I was too tired and I fainted during a performance. After I was sent to the hospital, a member of the audience came to my bed with chicken soup and words of encouragement. I was very touched by her gesture… Even now, she still sends me fruits, vegetables, chicken soup etc. It is because of her that I have become aware of how important it is to be a good actor and to bring a high level of art to the audience.
Therefore, I am determined to work hard on improving my Sichuan Opera performing skills in order to live up to the expectations of the audience and my fans.
Is opera still an art that reaches people?
Shen Tiemei: Since the birth of Sichuan Opera, its audience has always been dominated by ordinary people. I have to admit that, for some historical reasons, the art of Sichuan Opera has been interrupted for many years. In addition to the impact of many modern art categories, the audience has lost a lot, and there is a gap in between different generations. It is because of this reality that our Sichuan opera people have a greater responsibility and obligation to draw the audience back to our theater. One of the means to develop our audience is to create great works for them. Throughout these years of exploration and practice, we have seen a younger audience slowly approaching the theater and getting closer to Sichuan opera.
How important is it for an artist to innovate and find his own way into this artistic field? And how hard is it to accomplish that, especially in the artistic field of opera?
Shen Tiemei: It goes without saying that all kinds of art must be innovated to meet the new era. Chunaju Opera is no exception to that requirement. Innovation is definitely a very difficult thing. But innovation must have its basis, which are the fine traditions. Only by inheriting the good tradition can innovation make sense and be energetic, so that the audience, especially young audiences, can become attracted to the theater. Innovation is not only restricted to the manner of acting, but it also includes script writing, music, sets etc. that must be adapted to the tastes of today’s audience. The adaptations produced by my theater, such as “Jinzi”, “Li Yaxian” and “Sifan”, have all become new classics. These successful examples made us more confident about innovation. We believe that as long as the innovative works are of a high quality, there will never be a shortage in audience. For example, “Jinzi” has been performed nearly 700 times since its creation, and the theatre is always full…
You seem very attached to your country’s traditions but you are also trying to push them forward by bringing some fresh air in there. What motivates you to challenge yourself and your audience?
Shen Tiemei: There are several reasons for this. One is love. I am a Chuanju opera person. I have spent a few decades rehearsing and acting. My body is flowing with the blood of Chuanju opera. The second reason is that I have won a lot of awards and I feel obliged to push the Chuanju Opera forward as I must pay back all these honors to my country. It is my responsibility and obligation to play Sichuan Opera, to carry on Sichuan Opera, and let this art form flourish. Duty compels me to complete this mission.
Can art find ways to reshape a society and heal the harmful points created in time by the rigidity of nations in order to conserve traditions? Also, since this edition of Sibiu International Theatre Festival celebrates the Art of Giving, what else is art giving us?
Shen Tiemei: As our ancestors told us, “high-quality theatrical works can convey truth, goodness, beauty to people and bring positive energy to our society. On the other hand, it can also smother falsehood and ugliness and criticize negative energy.” This is the function that theatre has in relationship to our society. Of course, this kind of effect is not one-off and straightforward, but more soft and subtle like the spring rain that waters the dry earth. I think that the theme of this festival, “The Art of Giving”, is very meaningful, especially today, the meaning is extraordinary. Let the world be full of love, let the truth, goodness and beauty go into every corner of our lives; this is what art can give to our people.
Do you feel any differences when performing in front of an European audience?
Shen Tiemei: I don’t think there is a big difference. Art is common, it is universal and it can be appreciated anywhere in the world.
Are you a perfectionist? What is your relationship with perfection?
Shen Tiemei: In my daily life, I cannot say that I am a perfectionist. But when it comes to the creation of art, I am a hundred percent perfectionist. I can make dozens of changes to get a better musical note, I am never sloppy, nor make-do. I never allow any flaws to pass me by. Therefore, my colleagues are all complaining that I am too serious. But when the works came out, especially when they were highly acclaimed by the audience, my colleagues all felt that I was right. Even after we had won the top national awards, we would still invite experts to point out our shortcomings and hear suggestions from all sides…
translated by Sorina Tomulețiu
foto: Chongqing Chuanju Theatre