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High-tech traditional opera tests limits

By Xu Wei (Shanghai Daily)

14:54, May 02, 2012

Films of traditional Chinese operas seldom attract a big audience and the viewers are mostly elderly and middle-aged opera lovers, but a new opera film, "Dream of Butterfly" is more spritely, filled with special effects.

The premiere last week was packed and included some young people. According to a manager of Shanghai Bona Insun International Cineplex where the film was screened, "quite a few young people" had called to inquire, saying they wanted to take their parents or grandparents.

The film will be screened for two months, with daily screenings in the morning. Tickets cost only 20 yuan (US$3.17).

The dwindling audience and scarcity of young theater-goers is deeply worrying and supporters of traditional opera have tried many approaches to popularize it.

The "Dream of Butterfly," which uses digital technology to produce spectacular effects, is one of the attempts to woo a younger audience accustomed to pop and flashy, fast-moving entertainment.

It remains to be seen how successful that attempt will be, perhaps it will be a curiosity. The sensibility is far different from that of opera films, considered an important way to preserve historic works and performances of masters.

Traditional operas rely heavily on symbolism and the significance of a single gesture. So, completely computer-generated backgrounds can be a bit unsettling for traditionalists.

Some critics warn that high-tech scenes and special effects are quite the opposite of traditional opera and say the opera experience should not remind one of a video game.

The new Yueju Opera film "Dream of Butterfly" opened to a full house on April 21. The film produced by the China Central Newsreel and Documentary Film Studio attracted middle-aged and elderly people, as well as a few young people in their 20s and 30s.

Yueju Opera, which is soft and elegant, originated in the early 20th century in the south of the Yangtze River Region and was very popular in Shanghai in the 1930s.

'Modern look'

Adapted from a Yueju Opera performance in 2001 of the same name, the film tells a story of ancient philosopher Zhuang Zhou (famous for dreaming he was a butterfly) who believed that women are by nature capricious and decided to test his wife's fidelity in ridiculous ways.

The digital film is directed by the former TV host on opera programs, Wei Xiangdong, who is in his 30s. He says extensive use of digital composition gives the play a "modern and poetic" look.

"It took actors only 19 days to perform in a studio against a green screen but the film's post-production took more than two years," Wei says. "Based on shots filmed in the studio, we used digital composition to insert romantic backdrops and scenes."

The technology saved a lot of money on props and settings. All the scenes have the feel of traditional ink-wash paintings and create a fantasy mood.

"It could be a new trend for future production of traditional opera films," Wei says. "Traditional opera performance usually relies on fictitious scenes and settings. Our use of digital Chinese ink-wash paintings in the setting works quite well because the images are simple, abstract and elegant."

But Yueju Opera performer Wang Zhiping, who stars in the film, says that shooting in the studio was challenging because it was impossible for her to interact with a large stage audience. She had to make her performance and eye contact seem much more natural.

Some older viewers were uncomfortable. In traditional Peking Opera (and other opera) shows on stage, much meaning is conveyed by symbolic representations. For instance, a stage backdrop - it can simple be a cloth, a painting - may represent a landscape of several hundreds of miles; a single flag held to the side of a character may represent a battle scene; and a flag extending from a costume may indicate that a general in battle.

"Film should retain its tradition of realism, which makes it different from a stage performance," says Xie Guolin, a retired office worker in his 70s. "Moderate use of special effects is all right, but there are too many in the movie. Some scenes are very much like my grandson's video games."

Chen Qingyi, a manager of the Bona Insun International Cineplex, says operators see the market potential of traditional opera films among the post-1980s and post-1990s generation.

"We have received many inquiries from young people who are eager to see the film with their parents or grandparents on weekends and Mother's Day," Chen adds.

The cinema also plans more regular screenings of classic opera films such as "The Peony Pavilion" and "A Dream of Red Mansions."

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