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Zhan Min on Chinese operas

Zhan Min is the director of Hedda Gabler, based on the famous Swedish playwright, Henrik Ibsen's play of the same name. He introduces us to Yue or Yueju opera, one of the opera forms popular in China.

art and culture Updated: Dec 17, 2009 16:17 IST
Meher Ali

Zhan MinZhan Min is the director of Hedda Gabler, based on the famous Swedish playwright, Henrik Ibsen's play of the same name. He is also the vice president of Hangzhou Yue Opera Theatre, the company that performed Hedda Gabler, adapted as a Chinese opera, at the Delhi Ibsen Festival on December 11 and 12, 2009.

Staying true to Yue Opera tradition, all the actors, including for the male parts, were women. The play was well received in Delhi and received a standing ovation from the audience at the Festival's closing night. Zhan Min introduces us to Yue or Yueju opera, one of the opera forms popular in China.

When was Hangzhou Yue Opera established? Where is it based?
It was established in 1956. It is based in Hangzhou city in Zhejiang Province (180 km from Shanghai).

Why did you choose Hedda Gabler and not any other of Ibsen's play?
This play is very suitable to opera form. Apart from having this quality of using movement and pattern to express meaning, Yue Opera is very subtle with fine aesthetics and emphasises the inner world of characters. It is different from Peking Opera, which is very "tough guy". Yue Opera is more suitable for romantic stories.

How long have you been performing Hedda Gabler?
Since 2006.

Do you focus a lot on costume and makeup in your performance? Are elements such as music and singing emphasised in your production?
Most Chinese operas are very symbolic. At the end of Hedda Gabler, she wears a red robe. This symbolises the fire inside her. We have used traditional opera music such as violin, and used music of "Butterfly lovers" - a classic opera piece. (The company brought its own orchestra to play the background score. Instruments included drums, flute, fiddle and lute, among others.)

How long do the actors, especially the lead actress take to put on make up?
Yue Opera has the most elaborate makeup and actors take 3-4 hours for makeup and styling.

Is contemporary Chinese theatre different from traditional Chinese theatre?
In general Chinese operas (one form of Chinese theatre) is very traditional. The difference is in stories between contemporary and traditional theatre.

Are films in China more popular than Chinese theatre, including opera?
There is not very severe competition between theatre and television. They are two different markets. Opera is also played on television, which could be good or bad - people might want to watch opera live, and television might take away from their experience. On the other hand, some people are satisfied with watching opera on television, which could be detrimental to people putting on live shows.

Is opera in China primarily state funded or privately funded?
There are three kinds of opera companies - the Hangzhou Yueju Opera Theatre is completely funded by the government. We get regular salaries even if we are not putting on productions. The second kind is government subsidized but they also have to earn for themselves. The third kind is completely private who make money solely through their productions.

How does Ibsen's Hedda, a woman who is intelligent, free-spirited, complex and passionate compare to the modern Chinese woman?
Women like Hedda exist both in the past and present. How you interpret her character, or connect Hedda to contemporary women is the audience's job, not ours. Our job is to interpret Hedda's experience - to reflect what's happening with her. Some people who watch this show might realize something in their own life or reflect on their own lives.

On your visit to India, what are your impressions of our country?
It's definitely a developing country. People are kind and warm. I know that it is a very ancient civilization. I find it mysterious but it's too dusty!