An intangible cultural heritage, the Meilin genre retains its core essence despite challenges.
Li Xiuzhen is dedicated to his art. Just as well, as he has to act as the producer, director, arranger of music and, occasionally, an actor himself, in order to stage a performance of Meilin Opera, the genre indigenous to Taining county, Fujian province.
At the age of 74, he is energetic and still harbors an undying passion for the art form he has been dedicated to since he was 14.
"I have to take up multiple roles because nobody else can do it. I am worried that if I don't spread the opera properly, then no one else will," he said with a hoarse voice.
He explained that he almost lost his voice after working on rehearsals deep into the night with his team, a group of amateur performers who are devoted to staging the Meilin Opera in the county.
Meilin Opera, a form of opera with a history dating back more than 200 years, was listed as one of China's National Intangible Cultural Heritages in 2006, and Li was named as one of the certified inheritors for the art form.
The opera, like the Peking Opera, can find its stylistic origins in the Hui Opera, which originated in the southern part of Anhui province.
However, the advancing age of senior artists like Li and the dwindling number of tourists to Taining due to the COVID-19 pandemic was a setback to the county that relies heavily on income from tourism and compounded the struggle of the indigenous opera performers.
Mao Qingbiao, head of the professional Meilin Opera troupe in Taining-the only professional troupe of its kind in China-said the number of professional performers in the troupe has dropped to 21 from over 50 in previous years.
The troupe mainly relied on its income from funding, government subsidies and the box office.
The troupe's theater, which can house an audience in excess of 100, is located in a tourist attraction in Taining.
The theater only generated an income of 240,000 yuan ($35,400) last year. It was worse this year because of COVID-19.
"We are faced with mounting pressure, and our limited financial resources prevented us from recruiting more talent," he said, adding that most performers in the troupe can only obtain an income of about 2,800 yuan a month.
He explained that opera performers start training in adolescence, and only one in five trainees would be eventually admitted to the troupe.
For instance, the troupe initiated a joint training program with a local art school in 2015, with most candidates receiving an education of junior-college level before joining the program. The troupe only recruited four people from a total of 19 candidates.
The troupe's plight was also exemplified in the case of Wei Xulan, a 51-year-old performer who retired from the troupe last year.
However, despite her retirement, Wei, who was the most prestigious performer in the troupe, still had to make over a dozen appearances on stage each month to fill the void.
"The troupe is struggling to make ends meet, and I had to rotate between several roles so that plays can continue," she said.
Wei was born into a family of Peking Opera performers in Jiangxi province and the family moved to the county when she was 16 at the invitation of local troupes. She was also one of the students of Li, the inheritor of the art form.
Li also lamented the fact that the opera is faced with a "crisis of inheriting and protection".
"Not too many people are enthusiastic about passing on the heritage to future generations. We must ensure that the essence of the art form can be preserved. To attain that, the actors start with training in basic skills," he said.
Li explained that he barely finished his primary school when he was recruited to the troupe of Meilin Opera in 1960. He started to learn from seasoned artists, many of whom were already in their 70s and 80s.
"Every morning I get up at 4 am to practice, and I also have to take care of three to four teachers in the troupe," he said.
The troupe also had to use carrying poles to take all their belongings as they shifted from one village to another to perform the opera, he recalled.
He started on stage playing the Monkey King when he was 15, and the troupe would play three to five plays on a daily basis in the early 1960s.
"I was so exhausted from performing that I lost consciousness on stage several times," he said.
What is also worrying is that so far the opera can only attract middle-aged and elderly audiences, he said.
In order to introduce the opera to a younger audience, both Li and Wei have performed in primary and middle schools in Taining in recent years.
Li has opened a training program for 32 primary school students in the county, while Wei taught the vocal skills of the opera at different grades in the county's middle school.
The professional art troupe in the county has also taken to the videosharing platforms such as Douyin to livestream its performances in a bid to better connect with audiences.
"We need to enable the youth to feel charm of the opera. That is the only way to ensure the inheritance of Meilin opera in the near future," Wei said.