Mei Lanfang (1894-1961) was the most famous female impersonator in Peking Opera, specializing in dan (female roles 旦) and developing a new, sixth type — a young woman who was elite, virtuous, elite, vivacious and sensuous.
He founded the Mei School of singing and performance, which is natural, fluent and elegant and had a profound influence on Peking Opera.
A series of performances from December 4 to 8 will commemorate Mei’s 120th birth anniversary and the centenary of his debut performance in Shanghai.
Mei’s son, Mei Baojiu, and well-known students of the Mei School will perform works and excerpts that Mei Lanfang made famous.
Performances include “The Tale of Xi Shi,” a representative work of Mei; a collection of classic excerpts of the Mei School; a Peking Opera concert; and classical excerpts imitating the master’s memorable roles.
“The Tale of Xi Shi” was staged in 1922 by Mei Lanfang, who played the ancient beauty and spy Xi Shi who was ordered to seduce the king of Wu and bring the downfall of his kingdom. Mei introduced creative dance scenes and live accompaniment by the erhu, a two-stringed bowed instrument.
Performances will include excerpts from “Bury the Flower,” “The Drunken Concubine” and “Farewell, My Concubine.” All will be presented by the younger Mei with a new interpretation by the Mei School.
Though Mei Lanfang was a leading performer of traditional Peking Opera, he was also creative. In his 50-year career, he introduced innovations in vocal art, performance, music, costumes, makeup and stage sets. He played more than 100 female roles and was known for his sensitive portrayals.
Mei also helped introduce Peking Opera to the West. When he visited the United States in 1930, all tickets to his two weeks of performance were sold out in three days.
During the performances, a map of Mei’s footprints in Shanghai, including the places he visited and presented shows at, will be displayed.
Though the master was born in Beijing, Shanghai was the city where he achieved his fame and artistic success.
His first performance in Shanghai was “Wujia Hill,” staged in the autumn of 1913, to wide acclaim.
“My father spent the most meaningful and exciting days of his life in the city, It was a favorite place for him,” says Mei Baojiu.
During the golden age of Peking Opera in the 1920s and 30s, Yifu Theater witnessed the maturing of the master’s art.
In 1933, Mei staged the patriotic performance “Fighting Against Forces from the Jin Kingdom” together with Lin Shusen. It raised the morale of many people at a time when Japanese troops had invaded northeastern China.
At Mei’s former residence on Sinan Road, he met Charlie Chaplin and his wife and other foreign artists. He nurtured students who would become famous, including Zhang Junqiu, Yan Huizhu and Li Yuru.
In Peking Opera, dan are female roles. There were originally five types: old women lao dan (老旦), martial woman wu dan (武旦), young female warrior dao ma dan (刀马旦), virtuous and elite women qing yi (青衣), and vivacious unmarried women hua dan (花旦). Mei pioneered a sixth role, the hua shan (花衫) combining the qing yi status with some martial art.
• Peking Opera “The Tale of Xi Shi” Date: December 4, 7:15pm
• Classic excerpts of Mei School Date: December 5, 7:15pm
• Peking Opera concert Date: December 6, 7:15pm
Venue: Shanghai Grand Theater, 300 People’s Ave
Tickets: 50-580 yuan
• Famous excerpts once performed by Mei Lanfang Date: December 7-8, 7:15pm
Venue: Yifu Theater, 701 Fuzhou Rd
Tickets: 50-580 yuan