Singing operatic arias comes naturally to people in Northwest China, particularly those living in or near Xi'an, capital of Shaanxi province.
The libretto of Three Drops of Blood, one of the best-known Qinqiang Opera works, includes the line: "Born in the apricot flower village, I'm a native of Hancheng town, Shaanxi province."
These words, written by Fan Zidong more than 100 years ago, are sung repeatedly throughout the performance, with the place names evoking nostalgia among locals.
For most people in Shaanxi, Qinqiang Opera is a daily "must", with audiences eager to see performances at Yisu Grand Theater, located east of the Bell Tower in Xi'an.
The Yisu Art Troupe, the oldest opera group still performing in China, has staged Qinqiang Opera since it was established in 1912.
In recent years, the troupe has explored new ways to rejuvenate the traditional art form, responding to market demand and the fact that the older generation of Qinqiang artists is retiring.
Hui Minli, president of the theater and the troupe's first female leader, said: "The art of drama is taught by word-of-mouth and comes straight from the heart. When we recruit new performers for the theater, we always adhere to the principle of selecting those with the best potential."
To better develop the art form and make it increasingly relevant for present-day audiences, the troupe is seeking more-original librettos, Hui said.
Inspired by the Xinhai Revolution in 1911, launched by Sun Yat-sen, the Yisu Art Troupe, also known as Yisushe, was founded the following year by Li Tongxuan and Sun Renyu, two librettists specializing in Qinqiang Opera.
Hui said, "Different from other art troupes, Yisushe was founded with the aim of making a difference for the country by educating poor people who couldn't afford an education."
She said this principle is still deeply engrained in the minds of every member of the troupe.
"Originality and literariness have served the troupe well, and more than 880 original scripts in over 1,000 volumes are preserved at the theater," Hui added.
Wang Zhi, deputy director of the Xi'an Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection Center, said: "The librettos penned by writers from the Yisu troupe years ago were realistic and mirrored social issues and traditional Chinese values. Preserving them is crucial."
The libretto for Three Drops of Blood, the best-known Qinqiang Opera in Northwest China, tells of a case of wrongful conviction in which justice finally prevails. The original manuscript has been preserved and is on display at the Museum of Yisushe in Xi'an.
"For future studies and protection work, we should make more efforts to research Qinqiang Opera scripts that have been preserved," Wang added.
In 2006, Qinqiang Opera, which is performed in the Shaanxi dialect and known for its intense rhythm and high-pitched singing, was listed as a National Intangible Cultural Heritage.
The art form, which dates to the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), is widely believed to be the first type of Chinese Opera. Developed during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), it mainly found popularity in Shaanxi and Gansu provinces.
Qinqiang Opera performers not only need to master the rhythm and high-pitched singing, they also have to use their bodies to express their characters' moods in different situations.
The Yisu Art Troupe's rehearsal room is a hive of activity.
Every day at 8 am, students begin their basic skills training. Starting with singing practice, 19 young hopefuls exercise by kicking their legs and performing somersaults, before running around a field.
The session lasts for about an hour. However, for He Yuxin, 19, the youngest Qinqiang Opera student with the troupe, another two hours of training has just started.
Influenced by her grandparents, the teenager has learned opera at home since childhood. When she was 3, she hummed part of an opera for the first time, before being sent by her family to study Qinqiang Opera at the Shaanxi Art School in Xi'an.
She was hired by the Yisu Art Troupe in 2015, when it decided to recruit new members to pass on the art form. Previously playing qingyi, or graceful female roles, after joining the group, He switched to wudan－brave and skilled roles.
"Two or three years ago, my teacher at Yisu Grand Theater said that as I was still young, I could master more martial roles. As a result, I started learning skills to play wudan parts," said He, who practices with swords, whips and spears every day.
Like He, most Qinqiang Opera performers with the troupe began their training at a young age, with early morning exercises usually accompanying them throughout their lives.
Qu Peng, a skilled performer specializing in laosheng (elderly male roles) and xusheng (roles for middle-aged males requiring beards), and who starred in a recent Yisushe production, began learning Qinqiang Opera when he was 13.
In addition to basic skills, every performer needs to practice daily, Qu said that by following in the footsteps of renowned artists with the Yisu Art Troupe, he can master the essence of Qinqiang Opera.
"Some retired artists who specialized in the art form occasionally visit the courtyard at the Yisu Grand Theater to take us through the operas scene by scene," he said. "Once, when I was not in the theater, they were anxious to know where I was."
The 40-year-old, now starring in a newly written Qinqiang Opera as Li Bai, a renowned poet during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), responds to constructive criticism during each rehearsal, not only from the director, but also from performers and musicians.
Qu, a Shaanxi native, said: "There is always someone to learn from. One director told me how my singing needed to be adjusted. When the musicians feel they have become disconnected from my singing, they immediately point this out during each rehearsal.
"It's a process of mutual cooperation through communication, and just because I'm the actor, this does not mean I'm right every time."
Every role matters
The Yisu Art Troupe has a tight daily schedule. Rehearsals for a new show are sometimes completed in less than a month, with the production immediately taking to the stage.
The troupe currently comprises 55 performers. For each production, nearly every performer from the group appears on stage in different roles.
Qu said: "There is a tradition among performers at Yisushe. No matter how important your role was in the previous production, if now you are only playing a minor part, you must still do your best."
When more than one production is due to be staged, rehearsals take place at the same time.
"At our busiest, we rehearsed for three productions. Preparations for one took place in the rehearsal room, for another in a shack, while a dressing room was used for the third," Qu said.
He believes that Qinqiang Opera offers a special way to connect Shaanxi culture and the public.
"Traditional Chinese opera has rules to follow. In every aspect of a Qinqiang production, from costumes and stage designs to performance, the authentic elements should be preserved well," Qu said.
The stage designer for the Yisu Art Troupe, Zhang Zhaohui, a native of Xi'an in his 50s who joined the Yisu Grand Theater in September 1995, said: "Every part in a Qinqiang Opera should be vividly portrayed and blend into the performance. If not, it's redundant and should be dropped."
Wang Zhiqiang, a 29-year-old drummer with the troupe, treasures the opportunity to work with it.
"We have a great atmosphere for artistic creation and rehearsals, and I feel fulfilled when I see the reaction of audiences. Through our devotion to Qinqiang Opera, many of us have become friends away from the stage," he said.
Yisushe has come to symbolically represent Qinqiang Opera in Xi'an and throughout Shaanxi.
In 2005, the Yisu Grand Theater and the art troupe established Yisushe Co, with 123 employees under the management of the Xi'an Performing Arts Corp, a state-owned enterprise. Hui, the theater president, was named general manager of Yisushe Co.
The theater closed for renovation last month. The work is expected to take about 10 months and will transform the courtyard housing the venue into a cultural street named after Yisushe.
"I am looking forward to seeing this place, which will have the full flavor of Yisushe," Hui said.
However, she added that the priority for the troupe is finding Qinqiang Opera librettists to recompose traditional scripts or write new ones.
Over the years, many ancient librettos for the art form have been shortened from four and a half hours to two and a half hours.
"The difficulty is that there are many good librettists who are not necessarily familiar with the culture of Shaanxi or with Qinqiang Opera. At Yisushe, there is a strong sense that we need to find those who can inherit our traditional culture and write stories based on it," Hui said.
The last words are left to Qu, the performer. When he is ready to go on stage before each show, he folds his hands in front of him.
"In this way, I feel very secure and am more confident that the performance will go well," he said.