A scene from The Princess of Wencheng.(xinhua photo )
Chinese audiences are familiar with Wencheng, the Tang Dynasty (618-907) princess who traveled from Chang'an to Tibet for a political marriage.
But this time, starting from the portrayal of a modern Tibet, the story was told from a different perspective at the National Centre for the Performing Arts on October 10 and 11 and rewarded audiences on both nights.
For Mei Shuaiyuan, the chief director of the musical The Princess of Wencheng, the show is not about a transformation of an old favorite to the modern stage.
Instead, it is just the first step for him and his team in building up a new business model and further exploring the possibilities offered by mixing different types of performances and cultural elements with the travel industry.
Tibetan spin on Wencheng
In the year 640, Songtsen Gampo, the King of the Tubo Kingdom, asked for a political marriage to ally with the Han based in Chang'an (today's Xi'an, Shaanxi Province).
In order to bring the people together and guarantee the safety of the border regions, the princess of Wencheng was chosen to travel to Tibet to marry Songtsen Gampo. After three years on the road, Wencheng finally arrived in Tibet.
Unlike many interpretations that depict Wencheng as a poor girl who satisfied the demands of her father and country against her own wishes or who viewed the marriage as a result of Emperor Li Shimin's weakness, Mei tells the story in a more positive and happy light.
"There is no far away place, everywhere can be your hometown," a key lyric in the theme song indicates, highlighting that Mei's version focuses more on a sense of belonging and travels.
"The story is told from the perspective of the Tibetan people," explained Mei.
In one scene of the musical, modern Tibetan Buddhists are shown standing beside Wencheng.
The blur of time and space implies the perspective of Tibetan philosophy and religion.
Wang Kanghong, the vice president of Scenery Culture, the show's production company, said that there are already many different versions of Wencheng's story, shown on film, stage or television.
"Back in 1937, Tian Han, the renowned Chinese playwright, began creating his image of Wencheng. But we didn't want to repeat or copy the creations of others. Our version reduces the dramatic conflicts and concentrates on the change that Wencheng undergoes throughout her journey," Wang said.
Outdoor scenic shows
Mei's team has specialized in staging outdoor scenic performances, including works like Impression of Sanjie Liu; Shaolin of Zen Music Ceremony and Jinggang Mountain.
After the first show Impression of Sanjie Liu, for which Mei cooperated with director Zhang Yimou, Mei continued to develop various ways of staging dramas, musical galas and folk operas in an outdoor setting.
The Princess of Wencheng is a combination of musical and opera, combining many forms of music and dance, realism and fantasy. Performed by almost three hundred artists, half of whom are Tibetan, the gala show largely draws from Tibetan artistic and musical elements.
"It is hard to define the show. Art does not remain static all the time. There might be shortcomings (in the mixture of different art forms) but it is better than to have no creativity at all," said Mei.
Wang explained that the way the show is produced is to start from the story and themes and focus on the authentic and philosophical parts, instead of on practical elements such as specific art-forms or stage designs.
Developing an industry
For travelers who have recently visited famed tourist spots such as Zhangjiajie, Hunan Province or Kaifeng, Henan Province where Shaolin Temple is located, Chinese outdoor scenic performances may be familiar, as they have become regular showpieces in these and many other prime tourism destinations.
Over the last decade, the travel industry has increasingly relied on outdoor scenic performances to introduce local cultural elements.
However, according to Mei, not all existing performances can be called outdoor scenic performances.
"It is a practical concept. There is no specific definition. Thus, many shows describe themselves as such as long as they are performed outdoors," said Mei.
But Mei believes that there should be a certain authentic positioning for a performance to be called "scenic."
"It is traditional Chinese philosophy to emphasize the relation between humans and the environment they live in. The scenery and landscapes should be the main parts of the show with the human part of the performance seamlessly melding into the background."
The Princess of Wencheng plans to begin showing its outdoor version next year. It will be more dramatic and bigger than the indoor performance with animals and larger sets being used.
Moreover, Mei and his team aim for more than just another performance.
Mei said producing a show that can remain popular is more difficult than producing a high-end performance. In a crowded field, being creative is a key demand for attracting audiences.
Qin Xiaorong, the project's director, said that all the props and costumes appearing in the show may soon be available for purchase in Lhasa.
There will be a flagship shop opening in central Lhasa sometime in the future.
It will be located at the very place where Wencheng concluded her long and tiring journey 1,300 years ago, selling all the items that appear in the show as well as a variety of daily commodities designed around the Wencheng theme.
A Wencheng theme park is also under construction there.
"There are many handicraft and artworks in Tibet. Putting on such a show helps integrate the scattered development of these handicrafts and local art works.
"The indoors performance was developed for touring. After the Beijing stop, we plan to tour in 17 provinces in China to spread Tibetan culture," said Mei.
By Liao Danlin (Global Times)