Lou Sheng's schedule is especially full this year. Trips overseas have dried up due to the pandemic, but the schedule gaps have created more opportunities to travel around China, and that has paid off in a growing band of fans for his Wuju Opera performances.
At the age of 13, he had started practicing singing, dancing and acting, with a single ambition in mind: to be a performer of the old art form one day.
"I vividly recall how much I enjoyed Wuju Opera shows in our village when I was young," Lou says.
"Other kids were excited because that's when they could buy and eat snacks from vendors around the stage. I was simply attracted by the actors and their performances."
Wuju, a local opera of Jinhua, Zhejiang province, has its roots in neighboring Anhui province, and comes from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
The traditional art form differs from similar other art forms in southern China in many ways. For example, Wuju is sung mostly in Mandarin, so most Chinese audiences find it easier to understand and its tunes are high-pitched while others can be lingering.
"In Wuju performances, the dances and moves tend to deify humans," Lou says.
"For instance, when playing the white serpent, actors move and walk like a snake to make the character more vivid."
One of the most memorable scenes in the Wuju play White Snake is when the character Xu Xian rolls and gets up 13 times, and wraps the actor playing the snake around his waist and body, a thrilling spectacle for the audience.
Molian, or face-touching, and chuilian, face-blowing, are two techniques Wuju actors use in their performances, in which they change the color of their faces, for example, into red to show anger or blow golden powder on their faces.
"Unlike face-changing in Sichuan Opera, where all the faces are drawn and prepared in advance, in Wuju, it totally depends on the skills of actors," Lou says.
Lou was born in 1987 in Wuyi county in Jinhua. In 2000, he enrolled in Lanxiang Art School to learn basic singing, dancing and performing skills that Wuju Opera performers hone with time.
"The most difficult thing at the beginning is persistence because there seems to be little recompense for all the efforts, and all you do is just practice and practice," Lou says.
Apart from joining theory classes, Lou spends his time practicing. His legs have become sore and swollen in just days and they ache when he walks.
Even as some of his peers gave up under pressure, Lou pressed on.
Stages were not that fancy when he first stepped onto them. In 2003, he joined Zhejiang Wuju Opera Troupe, where he gradually became a renowned performer.
"Even when you become a mature performer, you have to think about how to improve your performance because the audience has higher expectations," he says.
In the 1990s, entertainment options were sparse, but that has all changed, meaning that Wuju Opera is under pressure to do more to attract audiences-for example, making storylines more interesting. Some operas used to last many hours, but to appeal to shorter attention spans, a more digestible two and half hours is now considered acceptable.