The Ascent Of The Prince Of Chu Opera
Yu Wei Gang shares with Sonia Tan, who was on a five-week Overseas Immersion Programme at the Wuhan Institute of Technology in Sep 2019, his journey as an opera star in Wuhan.
Award-winning Chu opera actor Yu Wei Gang has already achieved significant milestones in the industry despite being only 31. Photo courtesy of Russell Lee.
August 3, 2020
Yu Wei Gang donning his costume and getting his makeup rituals done before a performance. Photo courtesy of Russell Lee.
Thick layers of white and red make-up, heavy elaborate costumes, blinding stage lights and a sea of people watching. This is life for young Chu opera performer Yu Wei Gang.
At 31 years old, the young artiste has already made his mark in the industry, amassing 10 awards and playing lead roles in major productions. Earning himself the accolade of ‘Prince of Chu Opera’, Yu has immersed himself in this traditional art form for just 13 years, a relatively short span of time for a professional artiste.
His love for Chu opera was sparked at a young age when he watched the classic Qin Xianglian (秦香莲) on television. At the age of 13, Yu enrolled in the Hubei Chu Opera Academy where his classmates would be about seven or eight years old.
Chinese opera troupes usually enrol new batches of students every 10 years. With the exception of natural-born talents, troupes typically only accept children aged 8 to 14 years old, because that is the prime.
Theatre professionals often quote this as a succinct description of their artistic journey: Three minutes of glory on stage; 10 years of hard work off stage (台上三分钟，台下十年功 ). It was no different for Yu whose path to stardom was paved with challenges and hardship.
Chu opera which is native to China’s Hubei province has over 150 years of history. It usually narrates stories of legends and family life. Photo courtesy of Yu Wei Gang.
“You don’t just get thrust onto the stage immediately, you train a lot, and I mean a lot,” Yu said. Looking back to his days as an opera student, Mr Yu recalled that the daily routine started at 6am for a full day of lessons, ending with an indefinite period of self-practice until he could no longer stand upright.
“I repeated this routine daily for six years and although it was a gruelling period, it was necessary to help me get accustomed to the life of a Chu opera performer,” said Mr Yu with a strong sense of conviction.
Even though he is now the male lead, Yu continues to place a high emphasis on discipline when it comes to self-training. “There’s a saying within the Chinese opera community which goes: if you don’t practise for a day only you will know; if you don’t practise for two days your fellow artistes will know; if you don’t practise for three days your audience will know (一天不练, 自己知道, 两天不练, 同行会知道, 三天不练，观众就会知道 ),” Yu said.
With that in mind, even with performances on the same day, he sets aside three to five hours to train and practise.
Yu (right) sharing the stage with veteran Chu opera performer, Xia Qingling (left), performing the Chinese tale classic, The Tea Road (万里茶道). Photo courtesy of Yu Wei Gang.
Earlier this year, Yu participated in China Central Television’s competition programme, Ding Ge Long Dong Qiang (叮咯咙咚呛), where he performed with famous Taiwanese singer Julia Peng (彭佳慧).
Their duets that featured the fusion of Chu opera and pop music left the judges and the audience members in awe of the unique and melodic sounds of Chu opera. Their performances were so impressive that the duo clinched the highest scores during the multiple weeks of competition.
After the broadcast of the final episode, people from different provinces of China flew down to Wuhan just to watch Yu’s performances.
Calling this one of his greatest achievements and most memorable moments, Yu said: “As a young opera performer, I feel that it’s my duty to spread awareness about Chu opera. Chu opera is a beautiful art form; it just hasn’t earned the recognition it deserves.”
As a young opera performer, I feel that it’s my duty to spread awareness about Chu opera. Chu opera is a beautiful art form; it just hasn’t earned the recognition it deserves.
For those people who flew to Wuhan to watch him perform, Yu gave them free tickets as a gesture of gratitude. To him, the price of the tickets is nothing compared to the price they paid to travel. Their support and newfound love for Chu opera was priceless in his eyes.
Even with the fame and recognition he has gained in the opera world, it is an ongoing struggle to fulfil his financial commitments and shoulder the responsibility of being a good son, husband and father.
He said: “In our trade, it is a fact that we earn less than a middle-income white-collar worker.” Yet this has not fazed him from continuing to stay on the stage which he loves.
“I’ve dedicated almost half my life to [Chu opera] and I’ll continue striving no matter the adversities I face along the way. I see this as my lifelong career, ” Yu affirmed.
“I’ve gone through a lot of emotional and physical turmoil to earn my place as a lead actor. However, it’s all worth it because I want to give my best performance to my audience.”
I’ve gone through a lot of emotional and physical turmoil to earn my place as a lead actor. However, it’s all worth it because I want to give my best performance to my audience.