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Qinqiang Opera Singer Li Mei

Qinqiang Opera Singer Li Mei

Qinqiang is a thousand-year-old operatic genre originating in China's inland northwestern region. It has established a venerable tradition as an "opera shouted out" with its bold, resounding arias. Li Mei has established a reputation as one of the four greatest Qinqiang actresses. She's breathed a very feminine sensibility into the masculine tradition. She's also known for her passionate commitment to exploring the theatrical possibilities offered by Qinqiang, is always more than happy to improvise and experiment.

The troupe is halfway through an afternoon rehearsal and most have broken into a sweat. But Li Mei shows no sign of exertion. Singing in a near-whisper, the forty-year-old opera star executes the stylized movements for the notoriously demanding role -- the vengeful dead Lady Li Huiniang in "Ghost's Hate".

Little wonder that Li Mei is such a powerful presence on stage. She's able to embody a character so persuasively and tell a story so convincingly that European audiences warmly embrace this unfamiliar art form.

Opera singer Li Mei said, "We performed this opera in the Netherlands to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the founding of Holland's National Theatre. We enjoyed a fifteen-minute curtain call and the audiences applauded wildly for a long time. The local press dubbed me the "Nemesis of the Orient" and the "Chinese Cytherea". Why is that so? Because they've fully understood what the opera implied -- the loyalty towards love, and though dead she may be, her love persists. I think the reason why this opera was able to touch millions of hearts is that it has a beautiful story presented by a beautiful art form."

Magnetism is as good a word as any to describe Li's allure, but it doesn't explain how she has reached the top of her chosen field.

At age eleven, Li Mei entered the Shaanxi Traditional Opera Research Institute. After seven years of strict intensive training in speech, voice and stage movement, Li embarked on her professional Qinqiang career. Her talent was evident, and she began to portray the full-blown roles early on.

Like many opera performers, Li Mei originally had no desire to venture into the specialized realm. Then one day she fell in love with the stage, the traditional Chinese theatre, and Qinqiang.

Opera singer Li Mei said, "At that time, I wondered what Qinqiang really was. I thought it must be about singing and dancing. You could say I went into it blindfolded. Sometimes I even thought that this opera didn't appeal to me like pop songs did. But with the coming of age and the broadening of knowledge, I gradually had a new understanding about the opera. It has survived hundreds of years and still appeals a lot to modern audiences. It has its own brilliance that can't replaced by other forms of art. So I love it more and more."

Most forms of Chinese opera owe their singing and acting styles, some of their melodies, and their plot-lines to the musically fertile Shaanxi. The province is home to thousand-year-old Qinqiang folk melodies. Qinqiang is also called "random pluck." It's one of the oldest and most extensive of the four major types of Chinese opera, and thrives in the neighboring northwestern regions, like Gansu and Qinghai Provinces and the Ningxia Hui and Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Regions.

This distinctive opera actually comes closer to local yodeling than real opera. It originated in the fields and countryside. Locals would shout out one to another across the fields, and they gradually developed a system of song to communicate.

Qinqiang has evolved into an established theatre style, but retains its bold and rustic side. The pitch is extremely high and the aria timbre is loud and sonorous, keeping in tune with the forthright, valiant and industrious character of the local people.

And Shaanxi people love it. Residents of Xi'an take pride in their region as a historic center of Chinese civilization and in their distinctive traditions of folk singing. Every day the city's ancient walls and parks become a public stage for wanna-bees and enthusiasts.

Like other genres of Chinese theatre, Qinqiang is a comprehensive performing art. Singing, acting and dancing are embellished with acrobatics, martial arts and stunts. One Qinqiang specialty is fire-breathing, which has enthralled spectators across the ages.

Li Mei said, "The technique of fire-breathing is hard to master. When I learnt it, my teacher told me that it was key to control the fire, big or small. Another important thing is to look at the weather vane. Of course, we now have the standard theatre to perform. But in older times, my teachers had to perform on the open air ground. It's very hard to control the direction of the wind. Very often, the fire hit us on the face. A lot of elderly performers once had their faces burned. Luckily for me, I only burnt my eyebrows and lashes. The fire-spitting technique employed in Qinqiang is very unique. Many other genres of traditional operas learnt the technique from Qinqiang. I've practiced the specialty since my childhood, but I'm still very cautious every time I perform it."

Now in her prime, Li has reached the pinnacle of China's highest honor for the performing arts - the Plum Blossom Awards. Her repertoire encompasses a wide variety of roles, from court lady, to female general, to modern-day intellectual. Li says that it is her highest artistic ambition to get to soul of roles which can too easily become stereotypes.

Li Mei said, "I contemplate every role I play and try to really experience her life. So it's very important to forget oneself and enter the character's inner world. Use her flesh and blood to shape the character. Only in this way can you portray a full-fledged character."

Li Mei's gift for solid, accessible performances has clearly paid off. She retains the support of traditional fans while appealing to younger audiences.

Li Mei's teacher Wang Che said, "I've had to make reforms in every aspect of our life because we are experiencing a new era. The tempo of life has greatly increased and the aesthetics of the younger generation have greatly changed. Li Mei has contributed a lot to bridge the gap between the old art with modern audiences. Every new performance of Li Mei's generates a lot of imitation in the northwest. In Gansu and Ningxia, Qinqiang performers there study Li Mei's aria. Li Mei has made a great contribution in enhancing the aria and vocal range of Qinqiang Opera."

How to enliven Qinqiang opera as a viable, modern entertainment is a heated topic. Li Mei says whether new performers and younger audiences come along will decide whether a tradition ultimately thrives or withers away.

Li Mei said, "I feel that we need to bring up young performers, but at the same time, we also need to cultivate young audiences. What would it be like if we have a bunch of talented young stars, yet they have no audience? We have to consider the market prospects when we are about to manufacture a new product. So I often tell our young performers that you must always think about whether or not your performance appeals to young audiences. That's not to say that I forget my diehard audience. I need to enlarge my fan base so that more and more young people will like this art."

To those in the audience, Li's performances come across as light, fluid and effortless. Few can imagine it all comes from how tough, repeated practice. Li Mei works eight hours a day, six days a week.

It would be easy for anyone in her position to let success go to her head. But Li Mei leads with her heart. She trusts her own intuition and remains steadfast to her love for Qinqiang.

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