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It's curtains for men playing women (4)

By Xu Wei (Shanghai Daily)

11:28, January 12, 2013

Bi Guyun, 82, a nandan master, gives artistic direction to the classic Peking Opera "The Fall of Lady Green Beads," promoting the traditional opera art of males playing female roles. (Shanghai Daily)

Xu Hongqing, a 38-year-old costume artist with the Shanghai Kunqu Opera Troupe, used to perform xiaosheng, or young male roles, for eight years. But puberty forced him to abandon his career and work backstage, where he has achieved some distinction.

Peking Opera nandan Mou, who played Lady Green Beads in Shanghai, describes the ordeal as that began when his voice changed when he was 15.

"During those dark years, I couldn't sing high notes," Mou recalls. "I appeared in small 'extra' roles such as maid and vendor. It took almost five years to overcome my fear and anxiety and to get my confidence back with more intense practice and exercises. Many boys couldn't persevere and had no choice but to quit."

Despite aches and pains, Mou says he can twist his waist almost 180 degrees and execute 54 different "orchid-like" finger gestures.

"A woman playing a woman is life, while a man playing a woman is art," says Mou, adding that "a perceptive, objective man is more likely to discover, appreciate and depict a woman's grace and softness."

Xu Ziyan, a retired teacher and a Peking Opera fan, says that female characters portrayed by men are "more tender and exquisite since every posture and gesture is considered." She says nandan artists "truly know the most attractive side of women."

Li Ying, an accountant in her 20s, says she doesn't care whether female roles are played by men or women, as long as they are lovely and touching.

Nandan artist Mou, who also teaches at the Shanghai Theater Academy, says that when women enjoy equal rights on stage, nandan doesn't seem necessary to many people.

"Very few parents today are willing to send their children to learn difficult lessons of Peking Opera, especially for a life's role as nandan," Mou says. "It's a challenging and risky career since a student may never achieve fame after decades of effort and hardship."

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