Thursday, Mar 23, 2017, 4:17 PM CST – China

Culture

Zhang Huoding

Lone Star

Zhang Huoding’s intense discipline and talent propelled her to opera greatness, making her a bright star in a fading firmament

On stage, in one of her signature roles, opera megastar Zhang Huoding transforms into a spoiled bride on her wedding day. From beneath her mask of makeup and a gilded blue headdress, the 44-year-old enchants the audience with her refined voice and expressive dancing.

After the last curtain call, however, she returns to a life of simplicity. After she removes her heavy makeup and ornate gowns, this petite performer keeps a low profile, forgoing the primary colors of her stage costumes to remain unassuming in black. Despite her fame, Zhang harbors an aversion to publicity. She rarely grants interviews or attends promotional events. She leads a simple, quiet and highly disciplined life, following the strict “old rules” outlined by her opera master predecessors.

Zhang is the standout third-generation heir of the Cheng school of Peking opera, one of the four greatest schools for the art’s female roles. Although the luster of Chinese opera’s golden age has long faded, Zhang’s fans still flock to her performances and shower her with the same adulation given to movie stars or pop singers. This passion she still inspires makes Zhang’s demure personage even more exceptional.

Unexplained Power

In April 2014, after taking a four-year break to teach and be with her newborn daughter, Zhang returned to the stage and gave two back-to-back shows at Beijing’s Chang’an Grand Theater. On the first night she performed The Butterfly Lovers, a tragic romance often called China’s Romeo and Juliet, and the next she starred as the wealthy bride in The Jewelry Purse, the Cheng school’s signature work. The two plays both sold out the same day tickets went on sale, with some scalpers reselling seats for a small fortune. The event organizer had to issue a special policy – ticket sales were linked to buyers’ ID cards, and each ID cardholder could snag two tickets only.

This fervor stretched across the Pacific, too. In 2015, the opera diva made her US debut in New York City’s Lincoln Center. She performed The Jewelry Purse once again, as well as Legend of the White Snake, a classic love story between a young scholar and a shape-shifting snake spirit. The US audience, with many Chinese-speakers in attendance, roared in admiration for the artist’s melodious yet sorrowful singing and graceful, long-sleeved dancing. Theatergoers wouldn’t let Zhang leave the stage until after she took six curtain calls.

Peking opera differs greatly from its Western counterpart. It not only consists of vocals, acting and instrumental performances, but also dancing, martial arts, acrobatics, miming and speech. The art evolved out of several southern regional operatic styles in the late 18th century and reached its peak toward the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and the advent of the post-imperial era. Performers wear specific facial makeup and garments to signify the identity of their characters. Different colorings or costumes could represent a warrior, a scholar-official, a noblewoman, a maidservant or a clown.

Zhang Huoding plays qingyi roles, a term which translates literally as “blue robes.” In Peking opera, qingyi characters are often virtuous female leads; they are the faithful wives or filial daughters. Qingyi performers focus more on singing and have fewer dance or acrobatic requirements. Their behavior is restrained, controlled and graceful.

The Cheng school emerged in the early 20th century from the teachings of Peking opera legend Cheng Yanqiu. This school’s quintessential performance skill is the expression of deep, subtle, low-pitched tones that sound like a woman sobbing or whimpering, making Cheng school disciples best equipped to convey a character’s tormented inner world. Cheng school plays are mainly tragedies.

While her on-stage persona might be filled with lovelorn angst, the real Zhang is neither an emotional person nor a romantic. “Too straightforward” is the way many describe her. She’s known for candid remarks that, while sincere, rarely please others. There is a vein of forthrightness and decisiveness in her nature. When asked why she persisted with Peking opera and never thought of quitting, despite the art’s decline, her answer was simple and clear: “I never considered other choices. My entire life, the only thing I know how to do is perform Peking opera. If I had to change my profession, I wouldn’t know where to turn.”

Yet the Peking opera market has undeniably withered over the past few decades. Zhang Bai, a disciple of Zhang Huoding who studied under her for more than 10 years, told NewsChina that she has witnessed many performers quit and turn to other occupations in face of this decline. Fewer and fewer audience members have dragged down ticket prices, and now some performers only garner a mere 200 or 300 yuan (US$31-46) for one show. Even some popular stars only fill theaters to 30 percent capacity.

Zhang Bai said that the reason she has stayed in the business is the power she sees in her teacher. To her, Zhang Huoding has a mysterious charm and power that calms and centers people. As long as she sees Zhang Huoding still on stage singing, her water sleeves billowing, Zhang Bai feels an unexplained strength that soothes her and encourages her to carry on.

Slow Start

Born in 1971, Zhang Huoding grew up in a family of traditional opera performers. Her father performed a regional form of opera called pingju, which is popular in Hebei Province. Zhang herself first learned Peking opera from her elder brother Zhang Huoqian.

Her professional life got off to a rocky start. Starting from the age of 10, she applied three times to Tianjin Opera School, a regional Peking opera training academy, over a period of five years, but never received an acceptance letter. At age 15, after her father wrote a letter to the head of the academy explaining Zhang’s passion for the art, she was accepted as the school’s only self-funded student, responsible for covering the tuition fee on her own while other students’ had their fees subsidized by the government.

Her luck changed in 1989, when she was invited to audition for a position in the Zhanyou Peking Opera Troupe. If she nabbed the spot, she would study under Li Wenmin, a renowned Peking opera master and teacher of the Cheng school. Li, today approaching 80 years old, said she still remembers the first time she saw the 18-year-old performer and heard her sing.

A skinny, petite and unremarkable young woman – that was Li’s first impression of Zhang. “She looked quite asocial and seldom talked,” Li recalled.

Despite her noticeably limited singing skills and lack of vocal power, the girl impressed the teacher with the simplicity and ingenuousness in her voice, her constrained facial expressions and her unworldly disposition.

“There is a saying in the Peking opera world: ‘Showiness and gaudiness make for a poor performance,’” said Li. “But [Zhang] never acted like that.”

Seeing Zhang’s potential, Li accepted her as a student.

Zhang’s intense diligence stood out immediately. Li recalled that her quiet student was always eager to do extra exercises to sharpen her singing skills. Zhang was determined to keep up with Li Haiyan, then China’s most popular qingyi performer. Her industriousness made her famous within the troupe. Troupe members had a saying: “If there is only one person left in the practice room, without a doubt, it’s Zhang Huoding.”

In 1993, Zhang became the last disciple of Zhao Rongzhen, who was one of Cheng school founder Cheng Yanqiu’s greatest students. Two years later, Zhang transferred to the National Peking Opera Company, where she gradually became the most popular representative performer of the third generation of the Cheng school.

In 2007, Zhang became the first Peking opera singer to perform solo at the Great Hall of the People, the seat of the National People’s Congress, China’s parliament. Zhang’s solo performance turned out to be exceedingly successful. Yet when reporters asked how she felt about her performance, Zhang answered frankly: “I really dislike the solo format. Opera performers not only need to sing but also to perform on stage, working together with the whole orchestra. Standing there and singing alone made me feel so awkward that I did not even know where to put my hands.”

Less is More

Zhang employs a less-is-more passivity in managing her career. People around her say she does not have enough ambition and lets opportunities slip by. But as Zhang told NewsChina, “there’s nothing I want to expand on, doing more would consume a lot of energy.”

By 2008, Zhang had become a distinguished performer in Peking opera circles. She had legions of fans nationwide and performed more than 100 shows every year, touring through one city after another.

At the time, Zhang was 37. At a prime age for an opera artist to pursue every opportunity for career development, Zhang chose to press the pause button.

In her opinion, sometimes people need to take a step back and take a breather to better prepare for future challenges. For Zhang, academic life was a good choice.

That same year, she accepted an offer for a professorship from Beijing’s National Academy of Chinese Theater Arts (NACTA), while still performing occasionally on the side. In 2010, pregnant with her first child, she bid the theater a formal farewell in Shanghai after performing one of the most-beloved roles in her repertoire, the snake spirit Bai Suzhen in Legend of the White Snake. After that, she kept off the stage for four years. 

Her life became more simple and peaceful. She spent her time either at school or at home, dedicating most of her energy to teaching and being with her daughter.

At first, Zhang was not accustomed to the classroom. The NACTA students were mostly young millennials born after 1990. She was disappointed to discover that today’s young people were generally not willing to put up with the strict discipline and sacrifice needed to be a good performer.

Sometimes Zhang received text messages from students who got up late and decided to cut her class. Once, a student texted her: “Professor, I can’t attend class because something came up. Heh heh.” Zhang was very confused by the last part and asked her disciple Zhang Bai, “Why did she [laugh at] me if she cannot come to my class?”

Another time, she noticed a student failing to execute a movement well in class. “Did you practice?” she asked. “I forgot,” the student replied unabashedly.

Zhang was stunned. From her perspective, practicing is not something a performer can simply forget about. She seethed in silence for a while before stating solemnly, “I am very disappointed in you.”

Zhang herself sticks to the old disciplines of the traditional Peking opera schools. In the past, all of the opera masters became greats by practicing physically strenuous exercises on a daily basis. For instance, teachers would pour a basin of water on the ground on freezing winter days to create a sheet of ice and force students to practice walking barefoot on it. If the performers could learn to stride gracefully on the ice, strolling on stage would look effortless.

Even now, as a renowned opera star, Zhang keeps a strict, fixed practice routine. Three or four times a week, she arrives at the practice room at 9 AM on the dot to rehearse the basic movement of walking in circles around the stage – an action in Peking opera that symbolizes a long journey and a change of locale. Zhang practices one to two hundred circles each session, examining her movements and postures in front of the mirror during each rotation so she can perfect them. She also practices her singing weekly with the help of musician Zhao Yu, who accompanies her on the Chinese instrument jinghu.

Her quiet routine has barely changed since she returned to the stage in 2014. The introverted artist seems to like holding onto the status quo and living in the past. She admitted quite frankly that she does not feel comfortable with the Internet, not to mention social media. She does not devote any spare time to other hobbies. Apart from Peking opera-related subjects, people find it difficult to locate any common conversational ground with her.

As the world flies by around her, taking Peking opera’s former popularity with it, Zhang stands still, sticking to the old ways of her predecessors.

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