By BRYAN FRANCIS
SPECIAL TO THE
The Zhejiang Yueju opera's "Butterfly Lovers" opens this year's International Festival of Dance and Music
A retelling of one of China’s great folktales through a spectacular grand Chinese opera raises the curtain of Bangkok’s 17th International Festival of Dance and Music, Thailand’s largest annual performing-arts festival. This year’s event also celebrates the fifth cycle birthday of Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, and indeed the Chinese opera was her choice to open the festival.
A tragic love story regarded as the Chinese parallel of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”, the legend of “ The Butterfly Lovers” is also counted as one of the four great folktales in China along with “Legend of the White Snake”, “Lady Meng Jiang” and “The Cowherd and the Weaving Maid”.
Set in the fourth-century Zhejiang, it tells the story of Zhu Yingtai, a spirited young lady from a rich family. Unhappy with her confinement in the inner chambers of the family house and eager for an education, Zhu Yingtai disguises herself as a man to attend an all-male school. Here she meets Liang Shanbo, a poor scholar, who she befriends. Unable to reveal her true identity to him, they spend three years together as “sworn brothers” during which Yingtai falls in love with Shanbo. Asked to return home one day, the two part reluctantly with Yingtai promising Shanbo the hand of her fictitious twin sister in marriage. After her departure, Shanbo eventually figures that Yingtai is a woman, but by this time she is betrothed to a rich man. The two meet in a final bittersweet encounter. Pining for his lost love, Shanbo dies of depression and Yingtai is later struck by lightning as she weeps over his grave.
Bringing the tragic tale of these two ill-fated lovers to life is the Zhejiang Yueju Opera, voted the “Best Opera Company” in China for 2015. Famous for its dramatic stagings and only established in 1984, the company already has a vast repertoire of award-winning productions and has amassed more than 100 prizes in national competitions. Several of its artistes have also been recognised with individual awards at national and provincial competitions.
In Bangkok, the troupe’s interpretation of the elaborate opera will be accompanied by an orchestra and highlighted by spectacular arias, a world-class chorus, and, of particular note, characters that not only sing but emote. Unusually, their faces are not hidden by the traditional thick white make-up. The surtitles in English and Thai will ensure that all audience members can follow the plot.
Mao Weitao, an icon of the Yue Opera style, which features all-female troupes, plays the principal role of Zhu Yingtai. Immensely popular with more than 20 million fans in China and abroad, Weitao is credited for creating a series of “young female scholar images” for the Yue Opera, such as Zou Shilong in the “Birthday Celebration by Five Daughters”, LiuXun in “Resentments in Han Palace”, Zhang Gong in the “Romance of the Western Chamber”, and Liang Shanbo in the new “Butterfly Lovers”. This much acclaimed opera star has been recognised with a number of national awards including five Wenhua Performance Awards from the Ministry of Culture, and three Plum Blossom Awards. She is the only female opera star in China to have been recognised with three Plum Awards.
Director Guo Xiaonan puts this talented troupe through their paces during their Bangkok performances. He is also the vice president of the Chinese Opera Director Society, a member of the Theatre Director Art Committee, and a member of Chinese Shakespeare Research Council and has directed more than 30 productions among them dramas, operas, traditional operas and musical plays. Critics have praised his body of work as profound, significant, innovative, dignified and sophisticated and this has earned him such titles as “Outstanding Director of New Century” by Chinese Drama in 2006 and “Cultural and Artistic Leading Pioneer’ by Shanghai in 2010.
Guo Xiaonan has won a slew of national awards for his academic works about directing theory. He was a member of the Beijing Gehua Group’s creative team for the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympic Games opening and closing ceremonies and also created and produced for the 2010 Shanghai World Expo the rod puppet drama, “Journey to the West”, and the shadow play, “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”.
“The Butterfly Lovers” will be staged at 7.30pm on September 11 and 12 and 2.30pm on September 13 at the Thailand Cultural Centre.
Tickets are Bt1,200 to Bt4,000. Check www.ThaiTicketMajor.com or call (02) 262 3191.
For more details, check www.BangkokFestivals.com.