Han Zaifen in The Emperor's Female Son-in-Law at Columbia University. Zhang Yuwei / China Daily
It may not be as extravagant as China's other operas. With its high-pitched songs, it may lack the rhythm that other Chinese operas have. But Huangmei Opera is grabbing the attention of Western audiences thanks mostly to Han Zaifen and her modern tweaks to the tradition of dance and song.
"We present something very different from what American audiences have been seeing on Broadway, but they embrace it with appreciation," Han said.
Huangmei Opera (which means "tea-picking tunes") originated as a style of rural folksong and dance in Anqing, East China's Anhui province, some 200 years ago. The music is performed with a high pitch that stays high for a song's duration. One of five national operas, it is traditionally sung in the Anqing dialect.
Performers generally wear bold, heavy makeup and bright-colored costumes that is less extravagant than the attire in a Peking Opera.
In November, Han, who is from Anqing, and her production team showcased Huangmei opera on a weeklong tour of New York City, Washington DC and Los Angeles. But to better connect with her new audiences, she made some edits, or what she calls "reform".
In Huizhou Women, which tells the story of a beautiful woman in an ancient, inaccessible mountain village in the early 1900s, the opera artist made one dramatic change: She cut the sleeves off the heroine's outfits.
The sleeves can be meters long and flowing in China's operas. They also flutter to and fro to indicate a character's emotions during a play.
Han cut the heroine's sleeves to allow more visible movements on stage. The opera follows four stages of the woman's life: marriage, longing, mourning and homecoming. Each vividly illustrated the tragic tale of the life of a woman during the feudal era of Chinese history. Clear expressions were necessary.
Han has also integrated new elements into her version of the opera. Where Huangmei Opera is mostly a simple affair of drama, Han uses intricate stage designs and choreography to create enchanting effects.
"Even if it is a traditional art form, it needs innovation to better connect with audiences. And now we are talking about global audiences, like Americans," Han said.
She makes the Huangmei Opera "more modern and current", said Anqing Vice-Mayor Zhang Daxing, who accompanied Han and the team on the US tour.
The opera artist said she fell in love with the style of opera at the age of 10 because of her mother and elder sister, both of whom were Huangmei Opera artists. Han's reforms of the opera has not only received praise from Chinese audiences but has also garnered international attention.
In November, the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress in Washington awarded Han a certificate to recognize her accomplishments and her devotion to Huangmei Opera, the first and only Chinese Huangmei Opera artist to receive this honor.
Han, the president of the Anqing Zaifen Huangmei Opera Art Theater, not only performs but also manages her team of 30 members, juggling responsibilities from play production to marketing.
She said that her biggest impression of performing in the US was the inclusiveness shown by the audiences.
"I was quite surprised how impressed they were by this kind of art form," Han said backstage before a show at Columbia University in New York City.