Liu Shuoyu stars as Snow White in the namesake Peking opera production. (Global Times/Zhang Zihan)
"Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?" Most people will be familiar with the vain inquiry of the evil queen in the fairy tale Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. But how would the classic German story unfold if given a traditional Chinese makeover? Audiences will be able to see for themselves when an adaptation of Snow White by the Beijing Opera Arts College (BOAC) premieres August 19 at the Forbidden City Concert Hall as part of the hall's Open Door to the Art Festival.
The Peking Opera variant of Snow White based on a script written by Taiwanese playwrights Chong Chu'an-hsin and Lee Hua-ching differs from the original story by the Brothers Grimm. Before Snow White seemingly dies after eating the queen's poisoned apple, the magic mirror satisfies the young beauty's final wish to let the seven dwarfs grow taller. When the dwarfs realize their newfound stature is the result of such a trade off, they embark on a mission to save Snow White. Being adapted for Peking Opera it features all the classic elements audiences have come to expect from the ancient art form, including high-pitched singing, dancing and onstage acrobatics.
Professor Lü Cui, director of the production, told Metro Beijing that many original ideas have been added into the play.
"It differs from the Taiwanese version or any other stage version of Snow White performed by adults because all of our performers are BOAC students," said Lü. "Different from adult actors, our performers will make the operatic play much easier for children to accept as their ages range from eight to 16."
BOAC considers the performance an ideal chance to promote Peking Opera to children. But Lü admitted that aside from their Snow White production, there are no other suitable Peking Opera productions that would appeal to young audiences.
"Peking Opera is too difficult for children to understand, as most productions use classical Chinese and their themes are too heavy," explained Lü.
"Therefore we have decided in our play to use child performers, simple language and light music to increase its appeal."
Lü added there were other advantages to Peking Opera that enhanced its timeless appeal. "Singing expresses characters' emotions well, while performers' movements and acrobatics onstage are all unique."
Finding a prince capable of performing 10 somersaults on end was one of the challenges the director faced in casting performers. Meanwhile, there are other non-human performers who have been enlisted for the production, including a rabbit.
In one scene where the prince injures the rabbit while hunting (don't worry, it's all through stage effects), the rabbit turns to Snow White for help.
"By adding these animal characters, we hope we can teach children to love animals," said Lü. "We expect that children will be touched by Snow White's sympathy."
Even the spirit of democracy makes a cameo at the start of the play, when Snow White seeks shelter with the dwarfs and they hold a "one man, one vote" meeting to decide whether to allow her to stay.
Lü pointed out that Snow White marks their first attempt at adapting a Western fairy tale for Peking Opera, but hinted BOAC is considering tackling another children's favorite: American children's TV show Sesame Street.
"We think a Peking Opera version would work well for such a classic show," said Lü. At least the falsetto voices of Big Bird, Elmo, Grover and the gang would put them in good stead for a Peking Opera debut.