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Ancient operas' new stage in the social media age

Updated: 2024-01-23 06:27 ( Xinhua )
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TAIYUAN — Renowned Jinju Opera performer Wu Lingyun ventured into livestreaming in 2020 when stage performances were curtailed due to COVID-19 pandemic. But he did not anticipate that this traditional art in Shanxi province, with a history spanning over 200 years, would captivate such a large audience.

"I was reluctant to start livestreaming at the beginning, but the response from netizens changed my opinion about social media," says the 59-year-old artist from Taiyuan, capital of Shanxi.

In the first livestream, lasting over two hours, Wu and his family, all accomplished Jinju Opera performers, presented excerpts from classic pieces. They also shared historical insights and anecdotes about the opera, garnering nearly 50,000 viewers.

"I am glad to see there are so many people who like the traditional opera," says Wu, who now has a social media following of over 40,000.

China is home to several hundred genres of local operas, some with historical roots that extend back centuries. In recent decades, however, their appeal to young people has somewhat diminished with the widespread popularity of the internet offering diverse forms of entertainment.

But this has also turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Thanks to social media, performers like Wu have been able to connect with more young people. Some artists have even incorporated elements of pop music, xiangsheng, or cross-talk (a traditional comedic dialogue format) and other art forms into traditional operas.

Recalling the moment when she first fell in love with traditional opera, Hong Feinan, a 22-year-old cross-talk enthusiast, says when she heard an excerpt of Exploring the Clearwater River, a folk opera in Beijing, incorporated into cross-talk on a social media platform, it instantly ignited her interest in opera.

"The tone of opera is not quite the same as the music we hear today, but it has its own unique charm," she says.

Similarly, 25-year-old Lin Yuanxin explains that his fascination with traditional opera originated from short videos on social media.

"I used to believe that opera was exclusively for the older generation, but after watching the video, I found it to be quite intriguing and definitely not what I had initially perceived."

On China's social media platform Sina Weibo, the topic "How stunning is Chinese opera" has been read 26.32 million times and has sparked 18,000 discussions. A search for the keywords "Chinese opera" on the short video app Douyin also yields countless related videos, many of which have received over a million likes.

Lately, the performances of Chen Lijun, a young Yueju Opera actress, gained widespread attention in Douyin when she portrayed a male character. By the end of 2023, her play had been staged over 140 times, with 70 percent of the audience — mostly young people — not being traditional opera enthusiasts. The first livestream of the performance on social media garnered more than 9 million views and over 14,000 comments.

The integration of Chinese opera and short video platforms, in fact, began several years ago. In 2021, the earnings of Douyin creators specializing in traditional culture witnessed a 101 percent increase year-on-year, among which opera anchors saw their incomes surge by 232 percent year-on-year, averaging 3,719 posts per day.

According to Zhang Yiwu, a cultural studies professor at Peking University, livestreaming on social media provides a chance for relatively niche operas to reach a larger audience.

"It has become a trend to promote traditional culture through short videos and livestreaming," he says, adding that there is still massive untapped potential in this field.

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