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Yue Opera

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In the history of world culture, ancient Greek drama, ancient Indian Sanskrit drama and Chinese traditional opera are called as the three major ancient drama styles in the world. However, the first two had become the relics of history, only Chinese traditional opera is still active in the land where it was born.
Chinese traditional opera is the broad and generic term of at least three hundreds of local operas in China. Peking opera born in the Qing Dynasty has been honored to be the “national opera” which can embody the characteristics of Chinese traditional operas and the culture. Besides Peking opera, Yue opera is the prominent one among over 300 local operas.
But relatively speaking, Yue opera is a young opera in the big family of local operas in our country. It appeared on the stage in 1906, and only has the history of 100 years up to now. The year of 2006 was the centennial of Yue opera birthday. Yue opera’s development goes through several stages:

Ⅰ. the Origin and Formation of Yue Opera (in the late nineteen century)


Yue opera originated in Sheng County (now called Shengzhou City), Shaoxing City, Zhejiang Province, a territory of Yue state in the ancient times. Sheng County is near the East China Sea. It has a beautiful geographic environment, having mountains and waters, mountains around the water, the water surround mountains. Farmers here not only plant rice and tea, but also plant the mulberry to raise silkworms (silk is the raw material for silk fabric production). The ancient people praised the natural landscape of Sheng County by saying that “In the southeast, Yue state is the best scenery; but in Yue sate, Shan is the best”.
Beautiful landscape and rich natural resources attracted large numbers of scholars and celebrities to settle down here or visit here. “the Sage in Handwriting” loved the scenery of Shan, he lived here in his later years and died. Additionally, judging from the poems written by over 2200 poets in the Tang Dynasty, at least 300 poets had travelled here and written lots of poems. Some people say that this is a road of Tang poems. Poet Li Bai visited Zhejiang four times, and came to Sheng County three times. Du Pu, Bai Juyi and other great poets all travelled here. These not only make Sheng County full of poetic charms, but also increase more cultural accumulation.
In the east of Sheng county, there has Yuyao Tanhuang(Yao opera); in the south, there has Xinchang tone; in the west, there has Dongyang Wu opera; in the north, there has Shaoxing Luantan(Shao opera)…… All these things make Sheng county surrounded by the strong traditional opera culture.
The poetic and beautiful scenery makes the lyric and graceful art come into existence. Due to the mutual effect taken by different cultures, a new art form---“Chinese Folk Rap” appeared in Shan Town, Sheng County.
“Chinese Folk Rap” is a kind of rap, farmers sing it for amusement when they have a rest in the farms or enjoy the cool in the summer night. In the early period of Emperor Daoguang to the later year of Xianfeng in Qing dynasty, Sheng County suffered a serious natural disaster. In order to make ends meet, farmers had to go out and perform “the folk rap” for the survival. At that time, the art was performed only by one person, called “Dan Dang”.Nearly in 1902, the artists made performance in tea house, which made the rap art have a qualitative change: first, in the form, the art developed from “Dan Dang” to “Shuang Dang”; second, in the content, the artists started to perform some long drama; third, in the vocal style, according to the characters of different roles, the artists make different sounds by using small mouth, throat and large throat to distinguish the roles of Sheng, Dan, Jing, Mo, Chou, men and women, old and young to perform more vividly for the audience; fourth, in the performance, the artists increased more movements in the show. All this is to prepare for the change from the rap art to the traditional opera.
Early in 1906, the rap artists performing outside started to play roles as traditional opera did and made the trial performance on the stage. Before the Tomb-sweeping Day, the rap artists returned home. Strongly requested by the villagers, people built the stage with the wood plate used to make the rice barrels in front of Xianghuo Hall, Dongwang Village, Sheng County on March 27, 1906 (Lunar March 3rd, 32 years ruled by Emperor Guangxu), Gao Binhuo, Li Shiquan and other artists of the southern school performed on the stage. They played “Ten Things” in the daytime, and “Double Golden Flowers” in the night. The artists wore the costumes to play the roles, the vivid performance was fully affirmed by the villagers. “The folk rap” turned to be the opera successfully. The first performing group came into being from the original form.

Ⅱ,the Rise of Yue Opera’s Male Performing Group (in early twentieth century)


  Though “the folk rap” was an opera, no musical instrument was played, and no drum was beat. The only instruments were Du drum and the plate. Due to the sound and folk tone, the local people called the group as “Xiao Du Group” and “Xiao Ge Group”.
Since thel first Xiao Ge Group was established in Dongwang Village, the rap actists in each place started to follow the suit and organize the opera troupe. By the end of 1907, Sheng county had set up 13 Xiao Ge groups, so Yue opera entered the early period of having male performers. In 1908, Xiao Ge groups made performance in Shaoxing, Ningbo and other places, and performed in Hangzhou in 1910. On May 3, 1917, one group got its first show in Shanghai, and other group also performed the plays in Shanghai in June of the same year, but these two attempts ended in failure. For this reason, the artists started to think of their own future and improve the performance quality:

1:In the aspect of plays, expand the range of contents. Play the family drama “Dragon and Phoenix Locks”, “Baihua Pavilion”, “When Plum Blooms Again” and other dramas;

2:In the aspect of roles, take efforts to develop Xiao Dan, Xiao Chou to various roles including Xiao Sheng, Xiao Dan, Xiao Chou and Lao Sheng.

3:In the aspect of music and vocal style, set “Lingxia Tone” as the core, and create “Shizi Tone”, “Crying Tone” etc. The types of tempo consist of slow tempo, medium tempo and fast tempo. To the music, change the simple sound by using drum and silk string. The first band in the history of Yue opera was organized

4:In the aspect of performing, learn the performing styles and skills from Shaoxing Large Group;

5:Learn how to make up and how to make props
In April, 1918, the male performing group made performance in Shanghai for six months. Since the first lunar month of 1919, the group were highly welcomed by the audience when entering the Shanghai Bund. Since Yue opera took root in Shanghai, the male performing group reached the peak of performance. The group made the advertisement on the name of "Shaoxing Civil Play" to distinguish with "Shaoxing Da Ban". The artists improved the plays not only in music but also in drama. They arranged the plays such as "the Butterfly Lovers", "Jade Hairpin" and "Meng Lijun", making the foundation for developing the romantic plays by its own unique styles.

Ⅲ、 The Rise of Yue Opera’s Female Performing Group (in 1920's)


1920's was the time for the rise of Yue opera's female performing groups. In the spring of 1923, Wang Jinshui,a boss from Sheng county watched the show in Shanghai. Inspired by the popularity of the performance, he decided to return home and recruit young women to learn Shaoxing Civil Play. When he came back, he started to open the women performing class in Shi Jia Ao, the girls aged from 10 to 15 years old. After careful selection, Shi Yinhua, Zhao Ruihua and other 20 girls enrolled in it, the oldest 13 years old, the youngest nine years old.On July 9, 1923, the class was opened officially, this is the first female performing class in the history of Chinese Yue opera. After several months of study, Shi jia Ao female class made performance in the big world nearby the west lake, Hangzhou in that year. In January of next year, due to no adequate audience, the female class had to return to Sheng County after three or four months of performance. Back to the home town, the female class was allowed to play the show on the stage at the ancestral hall for the performers' soft and tender dialect. All neighbours and friends came for the show, this treatment was quilt different from the cold acceptance in Shanghai and Hangzhou, the troupe's owner can see the hope in despair. From this autumn, the female class followed the route that the male class had taken, and started the tour performance for a long time. The successful operation of Shi Jia Ao female class made Yue opera female classes boom in Sheng County. In the 1920's and 1930's,female classes were very popular in Sheng County, Xinchang and other places, and this becomes the key stage in Yue opera's development. According to the survey in 1935, Sheng County had more than 20000 actresses and hundreds of performing troupes.At that time, it was said that "young farmer can not have a wife". Though the word may be exaggerated, it was approved that Shaoxing Civil Play acted by female performers would reach the peak in Sheng County.
Male classes was replaced by female classes, Yue opera entered the period of Women'