Breaking genres: A theatre director interprets contemporary beauty of Chinese Opera

One hour before the premiere of his new play, “The New Romance of the West Chamber,” Ding Yiteng sat in the empty Drum Tower West Theater in Beijing. The show is the culmination of countless hours of work by the burgeoning theatre director, bringing his unique vision, shaped by life experiences, to the stage.

“I understand the Western perspective of art and aesthetics. But I love Beijing and Chinese culture,” said Ding. “So why can’t I be the one who integrates different cultures?”

A child, a man, an artist

Ding received his early education in the U.S. where his mother was doing her medical research in Philadelphia.

“I barely knew the alphabet,” he recalled. “My mom could have put me in a Chinese language school, but she chose to place me in a regular one with American kids, which caused a huge and unprecedented amount of trauma from not being able to understand people. Eventually, I played football, listened to hip-hop and played video games with my classmates.”

When he and his mother returned to China after the sixth grade, Ding said not being accepted by kids in his own culture felt like a “second trauma.”

Difficulties shaped Ding’s ability to communicate with others, and loneliness triggered his desire for self-expression. In middle school, he performed in the “Beauty and Beast,” and found a home on the stage.

“I suddenly found my place expressing myself on stage, bathed in the warmth of the spotlight,” he said.

In college, Ding was hooked on theatre and devoted himself to performing ever since.

His hard work paid off, as he played major roles with the Meng Jinghui Theatre Studio and became the only Asian actor in The Bridge of Winds international theatre group in Denmark.

He was nominated for “Most Prominent Young Chinese Theater Artist” in 2015 and 2016 and won the “New Prominent Chinese Director” award in 2018 with “Injustice to Tou’O.”

Inspired by his parents, whom he calls his inspiration, he never stopped pursuing new academic heights, obtaining a Master of Arts in performance making from Goldsmiths, the University of London, and a doctorate in directing from the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing in 2021.

His deep love for Chinese Opera sprouted while performing as an invited actor with the Odin Teatret theatre troop in Denmark in 2015. A picture of Peking Opera performer Mei Lanfang on the wall of the Danish theatre company filled him with a sense of pride.

“I felt this urgent need for Chinese culture and its greatness,” Ding said. After his time at the theatre, Ding dedicated himself to studying Chinese dramas and reinterpreting traditional plays, such as “The Injustice to Tou’O” and “Hall of Eternal Life.”

Understanding life through theatre

“The theatre is my lover. We are so close, so intimate,” Ding said in a 2018 interview with American theatre scholar Lissa Tyler Renaud, director of the Wuzhen Theater Festival. “The loneliness of being an only child, feeling insecure in a rapidly-changing society – these are common phenomena for my entire generation.”

Born in 1991, members of Ding’s generation connect with theatre based on their individual tastes and preferences, not necessarily through heavy topics like war or politics. However, theatre can be socially influential and significant, Ding said.

In “The New Romance Of The West Chamber,” Ding wanted to reflect on the topic of love by rewriting the story to give each character a modern identity.

The lead female character, Ruoying, is a rich and beautiful woman from a large family, and her lover, Zhang Tong, is a young man from a small town who is trying to establish a foothold in the big city.    

Ding’s play poses a question to viewers: Can the couple free themselves from the constraints of society?

“The script has been revised more than ten times,” Ding said.

The name of the maid in the original version “Hong Niang” has become synonymous with real-life matchmakers. Matchmaking fills the gap between “love marriage” and “fate marriage,” where individual choice is a major distinction. Ding’s play leaves an open question as to whether the couple will break with the realities of modern society.

When a young audience member cried after watching the performance, Ding knew her tears weren’t solely about the characters, but that their struggles resonated with difficulties in her own life. 

“No matter the era, there are barriers to love. How we overcome those barriers, such as social identity and perspective, are questions for our generation to consider. It’s not easy to love. We must embrace hope and face it bravely,” Ding said.

On a personal note, Ding uses theatre as a medium to express his own emotions and experiences, such as understanding the death of his father, which influenced his work in “The Injustice of Tuo’O.”

“It snowed heavily when he died. I didn’t quite understand death at that time,” Ding said.

“But when I looked at the sky, all of a sudden, I understood the connection between heaven and human, which was woven into the story of Tuo’O.”

When modern drama meets Chinese opera

Known as China’s most popular love comedy, the “Romance of the West Chamber” portrays a secret love affair between two young people from different social classes. Ding’s adaptation brings the Yuan Dynasty play into the modern era with new acting methods and storylines, and by integrating modern technology.

Modern drama uses dialogue, body movements and stage design to create a true sense of story, while traditional Chinese Opera uses singing, dancing and instrumental performances.

“The Modern Format,” a new method of theatre acting and expression Ding created, combines traditional Chinese cultural elements – such as famous ancient stories and Chinese Opera – and staging with contemporary performance techniques for Chinese and international audiences. 

For example, in”The New Romance of West Chamber,” Ding uses opera chanting, a technique adopted from the original play.

“As a director, I need to find inspiration from the traditional script, but keep a contemporary perspective and aesthetic style as well,” Ding said.

Modern elements, such as multimedia videos, electronic music and modern staging art are used in the play. The male protagonist in the original story, Zhang Sheng, was performed by an actress. This carryover from Kun Opera, one of the oldest forms of Chinese Opera, also appears in Ding’s adaptation, with both of the main characters being played by women.

While the modern theatre market has grown from a $250 million industry in 2013 to a $410 million one in 2018, dominated by younger audiences, the Chinese Opera market has lagged behind.

Annual box office revenue for Chinese Opera fell 10.5 per cent to $1.25 million from 2017 to 2018.

Up-and-coming directors like Ding, who find captivating ways to fuse old and new, maybe what the industry needs to grow.

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