Yue Opera, which originated in Zhejiang Province, is unique among Chinese regional operas. Its actors are primarily female, and its stories and actions center on love and romance. Among China’s regional opera forms, its music is unusually lyrical and sweet.
Yue Opera (Yueju), whose name reflects the ancient designation of the Zhejiang region, is the main regional opera style of Zhejiang Province and Shanghai. It is among the best known and loved of Chinese regional opera styles, second only to Beijing Opera. Two main features differentiate Yueju from other Chinese local styles: its actors are mostly or entirely female, and its stories, costumes, and actions emphasize love and romance to the virtual exclusion of war and fighting.
Music and Style
The first stage performance of a yue opera, which took place in a village of Sheng County, Shaoxing, Zhejiang Province, in 1906, was very simple. The music was based on local folk songs, and the costuming and props were rudimentary. The style proved successful enough for a 1910 introduction to the provincial capital Hangzhou, and in 1916 Wang Jinshui led a troupe to Shanghai. Reform followed over the next few years, and instruments like the two-string fiddle erhu and the three-string sanxian were added to the accompaniment. With the advent of women actors in the 1930s, the music became more lyrical and melodious, with smoother vocal lines, to suit the range of the female voice.
In October 1942, the famous actress Yuan Xuefen adopted the slogan “new Yueju,” leading further reforms, some influenced by Western theatre and film, others by Chinese romantic traditions. They included lighting and elaborate décor, colorful makeup, and costumes copying pictures of beauties of ancient times, with soft colors replacing bright ones and soft materials like crepes and georgette. The more feminine texture of yue opera is reflected in its lack of fighting and acrobatic scenes, distinguishing it from other regional styles.
Favored story lines emphasize romance and women, rather than the military dramas so popular in other regional styles. Many new operas were written during the reform period after 1949, including some that were directly political. Perhaps the most famous Yueju is Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai. This new version of Chinese culture’s most famous love story premiered in 1952. The young beauty Zhu Yingtai dresses as a man in order to engage in study. Fellow student Liang Shanbo falls in love with her, but her parents force her to marry somebody else. Liang dies of a broken heart, and the mournful Zhu dies jumping into his tomb. The couple change into butterflies, hence the name “the butterfly lovers” often given the story. The 1952 version emphasizes the cruelty of arranged marriages, but there are many implications in the story about cross-dressing, sexuality and gender relations. Other performances in the repertoire include Dream of the Red Chamber, based on one of China’s most famous classical novels. The opera highlights the love-story between Jia Baoyu and Lin Daiyu. Although Baoyu is destined to marry Xue Baochai, he falls in love with another cousin, Lin Daiyu.
All performers were male in the first Yuefu stage performance in 1906. In 1923, Wang Jinshui began training girls for a women’s company. Within a few years the women’s companies were competing with the men’s companies, displacing them by the mid-1930s.
Men actors tended to appear again in limited numbers beginning in 1952. Traditions have returned, though, and since the 1980s almost all young stars have been female. Li (2003, 191) draws attention to a “bifurcated development in cross-dressing” in contemporary China: the once-dominant playing of female characters by male actors is dying out, while the converse performing of male characters by females is still flourishing, especially in yue opera. In this sense Yueju holds a special place in the Chinese theatre.
With its unique emphasis on female characters and stories of romance and love, the regional Yueju is holding its audiences very well in the twenty-first century.
Li Siu Leung. (2003). Cross-dressing in Chinese opera. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.
Mackerras, C. (1975). The Chinese theatre in modern time: From 1840 to the present day. London: Thames and Hudson; Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.
Siu Wang-Ngai with Lovrick, P. (1997). Chinese opera: Images and stories. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
The more you try to cover things up, the more exposed they will be.
Yù gài mí zhāng
Source: Mackerras, Colin. (2009). Opera, Yue. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1660–1661. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
Opera, Yue (Yuèjù 越剧)|Yuèjù 越剧 (Opera, Yue)