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New twist on Peking opera pushes boundaries

Brittany Tom / NBC New

Actress Dou Xiaoxuan, who plays leading lady Concubine Yu in Chen Shi-Zheng's updated version of

BEIJING – “Why are you going to a Peking opera? It’s slow, boring and you can’t even understand what they’re saying half the time!”

That was the reaction Karolina Shab, a 26-year-old Polish student studying in Beijing, got from a Chinese friend when she said she was going to see a performance of the traditional Chinese theater that combines elaborate Chinese costumes, high-pitch singing, dancing and dramatic facial expressions.

That negative reaction among young people to the classic Chinese art form is common – many would rather wait in line for the latest Apple creation than catch the latest Peking opera.

But director Chen Shi-Zheng hopes to change those impressions with a new, modern production of the classic Chinese folk tale, “Farewell My Concubine" that just premiered in Beijing last month.

“We want to reconnect young people with Peking Opera and make it relevant to their lives,” Chen told NBC News, “This is a story of love and tragedy – a classic tale that young people can relate to.”

As the director behind the re-imagining of Disney’s High School Musical for Chinese audiences, Chen understands better than most how to relate to China’s mainstream youth. Working alongside an international creative team, the New-York based director incorporated some arguably controversial elements to the production in an attempt to save the art form’s declining reputation.
“I believe it’s important to push boundaries,” Chen explained.

Brittany Tom / NBC News

Director Chen Shi-Zheng creates a fresh approach to the Peking opera classic "Farewell My Concubine" which premiered last month at Beijing's Reignwood Theater.

With its fast-paced tempo, rhythmic fight scenes and flashy digital backgrounds, Chen’s East-West fusion resembles the energy and style of a New York Broadway show.

One of the most dynamic parts of the show was the fast-paced acrobatic and mix-martial arts moves displayed during the fight sequences. These kung-fu inspired dance routines are relatable to Western audiences, who associate them with cinematic icons such as Jackie Chan and Jet Li.

But Chen says his reinterpretations have not all been warmly received.

“Most people feel my show is exciting, but it is controversial,” said Chen. “Some people have said that I’ve destroyed Peking opera
and Chinese culture.”

One local Chinese art aficionado who spoke to NBC News, said he believes that Chen’s reinterpretation trivializes the true essence of Peking opera.

“I agree that Peking opera needs modernization, but not like this,” said the critic who wouldn't share his name. “The modern technical elements are too simple and make the performance superficial. People must appreciate the tradition before they can make changes to it.”

But judging by the nearly 5 percent decline in ticket sales every year, a new style may be the only way to appeal to both younger audiences and tourists.

Yu Shaowen, a Beijing local who attended the show with his daughter, found Chen’s reinterpretation more acceptable for younger audiences, comparing it to commercial Chinese tea.

“Traditional Peking opera is like traditional Chinese tea and [Chen’s] show is like commercially bottled tea. Traditional tea takes a connoisseur to appreciate, but bottled tea is easier for the general public to consume and enjoy.”

Indeed, a “commercially bottled” opera might be the only way to quench the thirst of young Beijingers and Western audiences who are accustomed to today’s fast-paced digital world.

 “I was surprised with how easy it was to understand and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m going to tell my Chinese friends to see this show,” Shab, the Polish student said after the show.

That’s a sentiment Chen hopes will spread as he works to update traditional Peking opera for the 21st century. “I've tried to create a picture book of modern images so young people won't feel completely put off by Peking opera,” said Chen. “It's an important cultural tradition in Beijing and there is always a need for constant reinterpretation to keep it fresh.”