Huangmei Opera was formed in the 18th century, when Chinese local operas were flourishing. Originally it was a combination of local folk songs, dances and some widely spread ancient operas. Bordering on Anhui Province, Huangmei in Hubei is a count famous for its tea and tea-picking songs, from which Huangmei Opera got its original name, "tea-picking tunes" or "tea-picking opera".
Before 1949, rivers and lakes often flooded, and the displaced victims had to seek refuge in neighbouring provinces. Thus Hubei's Huangmei Opera was brought to Anhui by victims of flood and famine. It developed from folk tunes to short operas and complete dramas. Nowadays, the lively short operas, called "everyday shows", are still performed frequently. Even "big plays" are almost always about folk life. The performers manage to infuse simple humour into plays about the privileged, so that audiences see a down-to-earth way of life in all the 72 short plays and 36 full-length dramas that have accumulated.
From the time when Huangmei Opera earned its initial popularity in the rural areas, it had a long way to go from recreational activity there to professional performances in the cities. It began as a diversion acted by and for peasants and artisans, usually at festivals and special solar times (the 24 weather-oriented divisions of the year).
As time went by, seasonal, semi-professional groups appeared, and they had to perform together with troupes specializing in more popular forms like Beijing Opera and Anhui Opera. Not until 1926, 140 years after its advent, did the Huangmei Opera manage to reach Anqing, then the capital of Anhui Province. It appeared in Shanghai in 1934, but only on the cheap stages of the city's poor quarters, where it was denounced as "bawdy entertainment" and where its unfortunate performers were harried by the local authorities.
Since 1949, with the support of the government, the Huangmei Opera has bloomed like a wildflower. In particular, the Anhui Provincial Huangmei Opera Troupe's "The Heavenly Maid and the Mortal" began a new epocj in its history. Though the play was a traditional favourite, the troupe revised the script, music and make up.
The opera tells how the Jade Emperor of Heaven has seven daughters, the youngest of whom, the ravishingly beautiful Seventh Fairy Maiden, daringly flees down to the world in search of a love of her own choosing, and marries Dong Yong, an honesr, kind-hearted serf, in defiance of her father. She makes the cruel landlord shorten Dong Yong's three years' indenture to 100 days, but just as they are leaving to set up their own home, the Jade Emperor has her snatched back to heaven, breaking up the happy couple. Pregnant and indignant, she writes a letter in her own blood to Dong, vowing, "When next spring comes and the flowers bloom, your son shall be yours beneath the scholar trees."
The moving plot, beautiful music and excellent singing made the play a household work. It was filmed in 1956, when there were few opera films, and given 150,000 domestic showings, also travelling to a dozen or so places abroad, so that the obscure wildflower became a masterpiece admired by thousands. The success owed much to the work of renowned performers, among them Yan Fengying, a country girl from Luojialing in Tongcheng County, Anhui Province. A versatile performer who played a variety of roles, she died young, a great loss to the profession. Anqing City put up a statue of Yan Fengying as Seventh Fairy Maiden in one of its parks.
The music of Huangmei Opera is its essential attraction. Three kinds 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, whose name is often the title of the piece, which may owe most of its popularity to the tune. The music of Huangmei Opera is light and lyrical, so a good performer must have facility in this style. Singing is not only the main approach to characterization but also makes Huangmei Opera distinctive 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 used local dialect, in this case that of Huangmei and Anqing, where the opera originated and matured. The language is a mixture of northern and southern and therefore easy for others to imitate while remaining pleasant to native ears. This was conducive to the spread of Huangmei Opera. Its local flavour and folk style are most vividly revealed in its original and lively dialogue, both spoken and sung.
Passion, natural and simple, is what makes Huangmei Opera an enduring drama appreciated by all.
During the First China Shakespeare Festival in 1986, audiences both at home and abroad watched with respect and inteest an adaptation of Shakespeare's "Much Ado about Nothing" presented by the Anhui Provincial Huangmei Opera Troupe. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sent a message of congratulation to Cao Yu, chairman of the Chinese Dramatists' Association, suggesting that Shakespeare would have been greatly amused by the imaginative representation.