Li Yugang has been compared with Peking Opera master Mei Lanfang and his new show is an ambitious attempt to recreate the four outstanding beauties of China.
The preview of a new show from Li Yugang, a controversial male singer known for his female roles, has the audience in a tizzy before the performance. Audience members at The Painting of Four Beauties at Beijing's Tianqiao Theater heatedly discuss how the 33-year-old will interpret the four classic beauties of ancient China, and wonder what kind of person he is in real life. And then he appears - striding onto the stage in a red suit and a pair of jeans, looking fresh and handsome to perform a song from his new show, switching from a male to a female voice.
A big screen shows images of him dressed up as the four ancient Chinese beauties, namely: Xi Shi of the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC), Wang Zhaojun of the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 24), Diao Chan of the Three Kingdoms (AD 220-280), and Yang Guifei of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907).
The audience is wowed by the elegant costumes, his makeup, graceful movements and imitation of the beauties' charming smiles and soft eyes.
Critics question his ability to mimic the four beauties in one 90-minute performance. Some are eager to see him dress like a woman again and are curious about the man behind the women.
In an interview after the event, Li appears to be exhausted and continuously drinks tea. He has been busy preparing for his upcoming show at the National Center for the Performing Arts on Sept 14, 15, and at the Great Hall of the People on Oct 3.
When a colleague offers him a cigarette, he declines, saying he has quit both drinking and smoking in preparation for the show.
Tickets for Sept 14 and 15 have already sold out, which he says is encouraging.
"You know, the new show means so much to me," he says. "I know everybody is watching. They want to know how Li Yugang, a man, dares perform the four beauties. They are waiting to see whether I have real talent or I'm just lucky."
Performing at two of the most celebrated theaters in the country is also nerve wracking, though he recognizes it's a great opportunity.
Doing a one-man show about the four beauties has been a long-time dream for Li, though he has played the four roles before as small parts in previous performances.
For the new show, in four parts, he will present the legends of each beauty.
He has done a lot of research and picked the brains of experts on how to dance and behave in character.
Li Yugang is known for his cross-dressing performances, such as New Drunken
More than 70 people have helped him put on the show which features novel stage settings, new musical compositions and costumes. Li will also take advantage of multimedia effects to present the grand mountains and rivers of ancient China.
"For the first time, I have added lots of dramatic elements, not just dancing and singing. The new show also has stories in it," Li says. "I am concerned with every detail, which is why I cannot sleep well at night. It's my dream and I want to do my best."
Born into a farming family in Jilin province, Li was the first person in his hometown to pass the national entrance exam for university. A year later, however, he had to drop out because his family could not afford the fees.
He chose to pursue his dream of performing and became a club singer. He didn't achieve any success until he substituted for a girl who was absent one night. "It was a duet and I sang both the male and the female parts. That's how I started with female roles," he recalls.
From 1998 to 2006, Li developed his act, borrowing nan dan (male playing female roles) art forms from Peking Opera, giving the traditional art a modern edge.
New Drunken Concubine, one of Li's most popular songs and shows, reminded audiences of Peking Opera master Mei Lanfang.
Even so, some Peking Opera experts called Li's performances amateur and others doubted his sexuality.
"I was lost and didn't know where to go. My original intention was just to make a living. Even my mom didn't understand me and asked me to find a new job," Li recalls.
"The misunderstanding, especially the doubts from my family, made me feel so sad," he says.
After he came third on CCTV's popular talent show Star Boulevard in 2006, Li was offered the opportunity to hold a concert. The organizer was hesitant, however, because Li was so controversial at the time, so he offered to do it without payment.
The concert, in 2007, was a sell-out and turned Li into a star. His mother was finally reassured.
"Even today I don't know how to define my performances. It will become a category someday but all I need to do now is present it well," Li says.
His cross-dressing performances were a hit at the Sydney Opera House in 2009 and in 2010 Li performed Flower in Mirror, Moon in Water in 11 countries.
He was also offered a contract with the China Opera and Dance Drama Theater. He is the only performer signed to the troupe who does not have professional training. His success has come at a price.
His long-time girlfriend, a saxophonist, broke up with him in 2010 because of his intense work schedule, and Li says he no longer has time for hobbies.
"I just cannot stop. When I wake up at 2 or 3 am, I pick up a book and read till morning. A singer like me, with no formal training and no performance base, has to work harder to catch up with others."
Li adds he plans to take a break after the new show. He says he has plans for a new show, but won't divulge what it is.
"It's a secret and you will know then," he says.
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