GENDER-BENDING takes on new meaning when Zhejiang Xiaobaihua, a prominent all-woman Yue opera troupe from China, performs the classic opera, The Butterfly Lovers.
The actresses play men - and women pretending to be men - in the story of Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai. The latter disguises herself as a man to further her studies and falls in love with the former.
The opera is part of Esplanade arts centre's Moonfest, which celebrates the Mid-Autumn Festival with a host of ticketed traditional Chinese arts performances and free outdoor activities, such as roving stilt walkers.
The opera troupe will be performing both The Butterfly Lovers and The Tale Of The Ancient Book Collector.
Formed in 1984, the 100-member group is one of the foremost Yue opera troupes in China today.
The 100-year-old Yue form is a young member in the family of 300 kinds of Chinese operas, but it is as popular and well-known as Beijing opera in China, says Mao Weitao, the troupe's leader who also plays the male leads in both productions.
Originating from the local dialect and folk music of Shengxian, Yue opera's conventions are not as strict as Beijing opera, absorbing aspects from its Beijing counterpart, Kun opera and various modern dramas over time.
The actors do not paint their faces in an exaggerated manner, but express their feelings through stylised facial expressions.
The male roles are also usually played by women.
Mao, 45, an opera star who has been playing male characters for the past 30 years, says the art of cross-dressing lies in voice control and in inhabiting a man's world.
The popular actress, who is single, regularly receives birthday and Valentine's Day gifts from female fans.
But, she says sadly, 'like all traditional art forms, we are facing modern challenges'.
That is why the troupe tours schools in China to reach out to the young. It has also included new operas into the more standard repertoire of classic tales.
The Tale Of The Ancient Book Collector, for example, is an original script by the company. It was inspired by the history of Tianyi Library, a famous private library in Zhejiang, where the troupe is based.
Written in 2004, the opera is a melancholic and poetic tale about a man who has to choose between his fierce love of his family collection of books and his sweetheart.
Mao says: 'The story is also an allegory about our troupe's efforts. Guarding a book collection is like what we're doing - preserving culture with our works.'
So, how long would the quest continue before this veteran bids the stage goodbye?
She says with a laugh: 'When I can no longer play a handsome man on stage.'
The Butterfly Lovers is on at the Esplanade Theatre on Sept 21 and 22 at 8pm. The Tale Of The Ancient Book Collector is on at the same venue on Sept 25 at 8pm. Tickets for both shows cost $48, $68, $88, $108 and $128 from Sistic (http://www.sistic.com.sg/; tel: 6348-5555).