When Bertolt Brecht wrote The Good Person of Szechwan, he had never traveled to China. More likely, the location of the play, Sichuan, was chosen to support his "epic theatre" approach to directing, which aims to create an emotional distance between the audience and the drama being viewed.
Now, more than 70 years after first being performed in 1942, the Zhejiang Xiaobaihua Yue Opera Troupe has adapted the morality tale. But this time, the good person is from South Yangzi. Their production, Good Soul of South Yangtze, was staged last week at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) in Beijing.
Yue Opera was born in the late 19th century in Shaoxing, Zhejiang Province. It was later turned into an art form where female performers play all the roles. With repertoire works such as The Romance of the West Chamber, The Butterfly Lovers and Wrong Red Silk, most productions feature romantic storylines, and the all-female cast specializes in a soft and exquisite singing style.
So, what is the result of the combination of Brecht and Chinese Yue Opera?
At the beginning of the show, one of the gods says, "The script says we should look for a good person in Sichuan. Never mind, Jiangnan also has many good souls."
On stage, clothes for a man and a woman are hanging up. Suddenly, all the actors enter dancing and wearing pure white costumes. The two sets of hanging clothes disappear while two lines of different outfits come down for each actor to wear. This first scene, as people familiar with the Brecht version may know, is the search for a good person.
Three gods arrive in Zhejiang, looking for a good soul to help people. After many rejections, Shen Dai, a prostitute, offers a place for the gods to stay. In return, the gods chose her to be the one to carry the humanitarian responsibility.
Shen is given money to open a silk shop. Unfortunately, the shop only brings her poor and lazy neighbors and relatives one after another. To solve the problem, Shen sometimes disguises herself as a male cousin, Sui Da. When people accuse Sui of murdering Shen, the poor woman finally reveals her true identity as well as the two sides of her nature.
"The Life of Pi used animals to talk about human nature whereas here the switching between man and woman is also a tool in the discussion of human nature," said Mao Weitao, the leading performer in the show as well as the director of Zhejiang Xiaobaihua Yue Opera Troupe.
Mao is a legend in contemporary Yue Opera. Trained to play xiaosheng (young male), she had never played a woman in her 33-year performing experience. In this show, for the first time, she must wear a dress.
For audiences who are familiar with Yue Opera, there are many surprises: the use of modern language in the dialogue, a weaving machine, water pipes, suits and qipao, and miscellaneous things remembered by Mao and other people living in South Yangtze during the last century.
These elements are new to Yue Opera audiences who are accustomed to ancient Chinese costumes and settings.
"Chinese operas tend to arouse your emotions and make you cry whereas Brecht wakes you up when you are just about to cry," said Mao.
Brecht's estrangement effect, which distances the audience from the narrative and creates a sense of rational thinking and curiosity, appears in many forms throughout the opera.
"Rap, modern dance and black humor are not only modernizations of Yue Opera but also ways to separate the audience from the drama," said Mao.
Characters may suddenly stand still and speak directly to the audience. There are also a few times when technicians carry lights on stage for scene transitions and to distract the audience.
At some moments, the audience may wonder if this is in fact a Yue Opera at all. But soon, they are drawn into the plot again.
Drama students in China are taught that there are three main performance systems in the world: Stanislavsky, Bertolt Brecht and Mei Lanfang.
Now with The Good Soul of South Yangzi, director Guo Xiaonan has created an indirect dialogue between Brecht and Mei. Mao said the key difference would be Mei was a man who played female characters whereas Yue Opera features women playing men. The intention is to put traditional Chinese opera in the same arena with global theater so audiences and experts can analyze and criticize the work.
Brave or brazen
The combination of Chinese opera and world-renowned stories is not new. Examples include the Huang Mei Opera production of Dürrenmatt's The Visit and Shakespeare's Hamlet in Peking Opera. Each time the assorted mergers accomplish varying results and spark new inspiration.
But can Western narratives and all kinds of modernization offer a possible future for Chinese operas? Are these innovations trailblazing or are they damaging the classical art? It may be too early to say.
Mao said for young performers of Chinese opera, traditional skills and shows are the heart of the art. Experiments and innovations may not be the future direction, but they show young talents the potential.
Playing a woman in this opera has proven to be an incredibly difficult task for Mao.
"Even when I play Sui Da wearing suits, dance in a bit of jazz style, it is obviously different from what I did before, where long sleeves and traditional Chinese boots are the usual outfit," she said.
Mao once heard that Chinese opera is a skills-led art. She never agreed with this statement until she met the role of Shen.
"We don't [fully understand] the era of Beethoven or Tchaikovsky, but when we play their music, we play with our modern vision," said Mao.
For traditional Chinese operas to survive and be loved in such a fast-paced era, shows like Good Soul of South Yangtze are worth trying as they fit into the time period today and modern audience's understanding of theater and culture.