Once called Huangmei diao and Caicha xi, Huangmei Opera is one of the most famous traditional operas in China.
After being introduced to Anhui Province, Huangmei Opera swiftly took off in Anqing and many other neighboring provinces. Now, the opera has grown into a professional performance piece in both rural and urban areas, becoming a recreational activity for millions of people.
Huangmei Opera was derived from Caicha xi, the folk ditties people sang while picking tea. It is a combination of local folk songs, dances and some widespread ancient operas. Bordering on Anhui Province, Huangmei County in Hubei Province is famous for its tea and tea-picking songs; it is also where Huangmei Opera got its original name Caicha xi (tea-picking opera).
Before 1949, rivers and lakes in Anhui Province were often flooded and the displaced victims had to seek refuge in neighboring provinces. As a result, Huangmei Opera of Hubei Province was brought to Anhui by victims of flood and famine.
Performed frequently in villages and towns by small groups of local people, Huangmei Opera grew increasingly popular. It developed from folk tunes into short dramas and even complete theatrical works, which can be performed on stage and as TV series.
From the time that Huangmei Opera became popular in rural areas, it had gone a long way from its status as a recreational activity to professional performances in big cities. It began as a diversion acted by and for peasants and artisans at festivals and special solar periods (the 24 weather-oriented divisions of the year).
As time went by, seasonal, semi-professional groups appeared, and they performed together with troupes that specialized in more popular forms of the art, like Peking Opera and Anhui Opera. It was not until 1926 -- 140 years after its advent -- that Huangmei Opera managed to reach Anqing, then capital of Anhui Province. It appeared in Shanghai in 1934, but only on makeshift stages in the city's poor quarters where it was denounced as "bawdy entertainment" and its unfortunate performers were harried by local authorities.
In the early years, most Huangmei Opera programs were based on folk tales. But as the opera flourished, more and more stories from other opera genres were incorporated. Huangmei artists even adapted the works of Shakespeare. During the First China Shakespeare Festival (1986), the Anhui Provincial Huangmei Opera Troupe presented an adaptation of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing.
Nowadays, Huangmei Opera is mainly popular in Anhui, Jiangxi and Hubei provinces, and some of its famous actors and actresses include Yan Fengying, Wang Shaofang and Pan Jingli. The opera has also spread its fame both home and abroad with its sweet melodies and lyrics, graceful sounds and movements, and beautiful costumes and sets.
Huangmei Opera music features folk songs that are graceful and sweet-sounding. Three types of music are used: coloratura, character songs and basic tunes. The 104 coloratura tunes are taken from folk songs, tea-picking songs and other ditties. A short opera usually has its own features and is often named after the title of its most popular piece. Since Huangmei Opera music is light and lyrical, a good performer must be skilled in performing such a style. Singing is not only the main approach to characterization: It also distinguishes Huangmei Opera both stylistically and musically.
Huangmei Opera is easy to understand and learn thanks to its lyrical tunes, simple words and literary tradition. Like other Chinese local operas, Huangmei Opera also adopts the local dialect. Since the language is a mixture of northern and southern styles, it is therefore easy to imitate and pleasant to native ears. (This factor also helped disseminate Huangmei Opera.) Its local flavor and folk style are most vividly revealed in its original and lively dialogue, which is both spoken and sung.
Over the past 200 years, Huangmei Opera has developed quite a number of repertoires much loved by people. In particular, Tian xian pei (The Heavenly Maid and the Mortal) is the best known.