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When Snuff Bottles saved Quju Opera

Twenty years ago, when composer Dai Yisheng, along with scriptwriter Zhang Yonghe and director Gu Wei, created Snuff Bottles, a Quju Opera work produced by Beijing Quju Opera Troupe, she didn't expect that the show would save Quju Opera, a local operatic form developed in the 1950s in Beijing, from extinction.

The show also saved the troupe, which was on the verge of being disbanded.

Recently, the show has celebrated its 20th anniversary and a new round of performances was staged in Beijing.

"Before Snuff Bottles was born, we hadn't done new shows for five years. All my colleagues were worried about the future of our troupe," recalls Dai, 73.

"We were so devoted to Quju Opera and we didn't want it to die," says the veteran composer, who had been with Beijing Quju Opera Troupe since 1972 and is now retired.

To Dai's surprise, the show, Snuff Bottles, which was performed in the Beijing dialect to the accompaniment of sanxian, a three-stringed plucked musical instrument, and rhythmic drumbeats, enabled Quju Opera and the troupe to make a comeback to the theaters in Beijing.

Based on a novel of the same title by Deng Yongmei, the show tells of the miserable life of a skilled craftsman, who would rather cut off one of his arms than make a snuff bottle bearing the image of a foreign invader for a traitor of the Qing imperial lineage.

Gu, in his 80s, a director from the Beijing People's Art Theater, says: "Before Snuff Bottles, I had never directed Quju Opera shows. On the first day of our rehearsal, I found that Quju Opera so interesting.

"I am a Beijing native. All the details, such as the music and dialogue, were so familiar to me. The show looks like a painting about old Beijing. That's why it connected with the audiences."

According to Sun Dongxing, the director of the Beijing Quju Opera Troupe, Snuff Bottles has been performed nearly 400 times and has been viewed by around 170,000 people. It has also won the troupe top national opera wards, such as Wenhua Prize and the first Golden Chrysanthemum Prize.

"The show injected energy into the troupe. It also laid the foundation for the style of Quju Opera, which showcases traditional Beijing culture, such as the dialect and humor, and focuses on portraying characters with stories happening in Beijing," Sun says.

Sun says that during the past 20 years, three generations of actors of the Beijing Quju Opera Troupe — which was founded in 1959 — have performed Snuff Bottles.

With more young Quju Opera graduates joining the troupe, the show will be revived with contemporary elements while maintaining its unique artistic charm.