Published: 16:57, May 28, 2024
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Peking Opera joins industrial era
By Cheng Yuezhu

Performance centers on port operations and brings new vitality to traditional art form, Cheng Yuezhu reports.

The cast of modern Peking Opera Nongchao (Riding the Tides) takes a curtain call at the China National Opera House in Beijing on May 18, 2024. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

At Qingdao Port in Shandong province, there are numerous containers being loaded, discharged or transported day and night, yet normally no one is in sight.

The modern Peking Opera production Nongchao (Riding the Tides) sheds light on the port, which is the first fully automated container terminal in Asia, and Zhang Liangang and his Liangang Innovation Team, who made it come true.

Coproduced by the port's owner, the Shandong Port Group, and the Qingdao Performing Arts Group, and performed by the Qingdao Peking Opera Theater, the production graced the stage of the China National Opera House in Beijing on May 18.

The storyline revolves around Zhang, a senior expert of the port group and a key figure in the development and construction of the automated terminal. Back in 2013, Zhang took on the challenge of leading a team to build an automated terminal, despite undergoing lung cancer surgery five years previously.

At the time, the crucial technologies were dominated by industrial giants of developed countries. Without any resources, experience or external support, Zhang led a team of 25 in a pioneering effort to develop their own solutions.

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After countless meetings, plans and tests, the team completed a detailed terminal design in just 15 months, and the terminal was put into service in 2017, with world-leading operational efficiency.

Zhang's inspiring story and unwavering commitment led to the Peking Opera production. After the performing arts project was initiated, the production crew, led by Lu Ang, chief director and professor at the Shanghai Theatre Academy, embarked on a field trip to the port to gain insight into its construction and operation.

"I went on the trip with more than 20 questions prepared, during which many things moved us deeply. In fact, many stories on stage now are based on the real experiences of real individuals," Lu says.

The production centers on Zhang Liangang, a senior expert at the Shandong Port Group, and his Liangang Innovation Team. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Apart from how Zhang Liangang led the team through challenges while personally battling adverse health conditions, Lu found the experiences of the other members from the Liangang Innovation Team touching, pioneering and inspiring.

Examples of these real stories include that of team member Xu Yongning, who works at the port construction project during the day and looks after his ill wife at the hospital at night, or that of Li Yongcui, the only female engineer of the team, who leads a sub-team in the development of the equipment control system.

Entering the team's work environment also gave the production crew a sneak peek into the harshness of working conditions. Scriptwriter Wang Yong, who is director of the National Peking Opera Co, says that even ascending the tower crane was a petrifying experience, let alone working on one, especially when the crane shakes during windy or rainy weather.

"When we truly walked in their footsteps, we found so many moments that stirred emotions within us. China's port industry is indeed the dream of several generations, and this is what we have always wanted to convey in our subsequent creation process — it's not just about one individual, but about teamwork," Lu says.

As it is a modern Peking Opera production, one of the greatest challenges in the creation process is how to retain the essence of Peking Opera, including its vocal techniques and acting skills, while presenting a contemporary story taking place in an industrial high-tech setting, according to Lu.

The production's composition and vocal design are undertaken by Zhu Shaoyu, a national-level inheritor of the Peking Opera intangible cultural heritage project.

To ensure efficiency and high quality, Zhu worked closely with the director and scriptwriter at every stage. Often, when a segment of lyrics was written, Zhu would immediately begin working on the composition, making adjustments as needed, rather than waiting for the entire script to be finalized.

"Within the character types of Peking Opera, I made sure that three of them, sheng (dignified male role), dan (dignified female role) and jing (male role with face paint), had their own solo passages to cater to the preferences of Peking Opera fans," Zhu says.

"In terms of music, we aimed for a modern, experimental approach, because the production centers on a contemporary subject. We boldly incorporated a choir, a symphony orchestra, and even elements of electronic music."

A digital set design enhances the story's contemporary industrial setting. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

As the story is set against an industrialized port backdrop, Jin Sa, the production's stage designer and a professor from the National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts, decided to adopt primarily digital projection, instead of traditional stage settings, to present the dynamics of the contemporary industry, as well as to highlight the narrative.

First initiated in 2022, the production made its premiere in April 2023, under the title Oriental Grand Port, and was honored as an excellent production at the 10th Chinese Peking Opera Arts Festival last year. The crew continued to make refinements to the production and the performers kept honing their acting and singing.

At a roundtable discussion on May 19, the production received critical acclaim from performing arts experts and scholars.

"Seeing its polished version this year, I believe that this production has achieved a pioneering fusion of Peking Opera, industrial themes and performing arts expressions. Especially in the field of Peking Opera, it is very difficult to make such a breakthrough," says Cui Wei, former secretary-general of the China Theatre Association.

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"My greatest takeaway is that through artistic expression, the production presents the philosophy behind the construction of Qingdao's automated port and the dedication of technical and industrial workers. Only those who innovate can progress and succeed. This embodies the spirit and vitality of China."

For the production's future performances, apart from making improvements, Lu has a vision that it can become a resident production in Qingdao in the long term.

"During our last field trip, we arrived at the old port of Qingdao near the city center. There, we saw several former granary buildings, which were being renovated into cultural venues, and I asked whether we could reserve one of the buildings as a theater," Lu says.

"Qingdao is a tourist city, and Qingdao Port is a significant cultural emblem of the city. We hope that this production, after making further refinements, could be performed on-site at the port. This would allow visitors from home and abroad to learn about the specific history of Qingdao's port construction."

Contact the writer at chengyuezhu@chinadaily.com.cn