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How Taiwan is helping reinvent Peking opera

BEIJING — Some members of the audience are thrilled, shaking their heads to the music, while others block their ears and leave the theater.

"These are typical reactions at Peking Opera performances," says Li Baochun.

"Some viewers, mostly seniors, are diehard fans, while young people find this ancient art outdated."

The 67-year-old Peking Opera master, the son of the late master of this old art form, Li Shaochun, does not deny that Peking Opera, which combines singing, dancing, acrobatics and martial arts, like many other such art forms in China, is struggling to survive in the face of a fading fan base.

The director of Taipei Li-yuan Peking Opera Theater — which he founded in 1998 after he moved to Taiwan-is pushing the boundaries of traditional theater and reaching out to audiences, especially the younger generation, with performances that give the old art a contemporary touch.

From Aug 11 to 13, Li will use Beijing's Poly Theater to present three productions: The Palace of Eternal Life, which focuses on the story of Li Longji, the seventh emperor of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and his favorite concubine Yang Yuhuan; The Lotus Lamp, which is based on the Chinese legend about Chen Xiang saving his mother; and Zhao Kuangyin, the story of the first emperor of the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

Actors from Taiwan and China, including Tianjin Peking Opera Theater and Suzhou Kunqu Opera Theater, will perform together in the shows.

Since its birth, Taipei Li-yuan Peking Opera Theater has produced 44 original Peking Opera works, which have been staged nearly 200 times.

All these works are "new old plays," a brainchild of Li, in which "new" refers to new elements and techniques and "old" means the tradition.

Among the creations are Yun Luo Mountain, a revised version of a classic Peking Opera work, which Li's father performed, and The Jester, a Peking Opera version of Giuseppe Verdi's classical opera, Rigoletto.

For Li, absorbing new things keeps the Chinese opera fresh.

Every year, Li travels around the world to watch various shows — from contemporary dance and Broadway performances to rock concerts.

For example, in The Palace of Eternal Life, which premiered in Taipei in June 2016, Li mixed the Peking Opera and Kunqu Opera singing styles.

"Peking Opera and Kunqu Opera have many ways to interpret a role, especially complicated emotions.

"The soft, smooth Kunqu Opera style contrasts with the powerful Peking Opera style, highlighting the personalities and conflict," says Li, who plays the emperor in the piece alongside Kunqu Opera performer Xu Sijia as Yang Guifei.

In The Lotus Lamp, in which an "army" of tigers prepares for battle, Li blends Peking Opera with contemporary dance, accompanied by a Western symphonic band and traditional Chinese percussion.

Li, who was born in Beijing, studied Peking Opera with his late grandfather, Li Guichun, who performed at the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) court, and his father.

Li studied lao sheng (older, male) roles and wu sheng (male martial arts) roles for Peking Opera at the Beijing Theater Arts School from age 10.

After graduation in 1969, he worked at the China Peking Opera Theater, now the China National Peking Opera Company, before moving to the United States with his family in the late 1980s.

Later, he even considered quitting acting, and opened an ice-cream shop in the U.S. to make a living.

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