Since his early teens, Yan Lixiu wanted to be an opera singer, but he was told he could never realise his dream because of his smallpox facial scars. Now a successful director of a privately owned art troupe, the 60-year-old describes how he has kept his hopes alive by taking his art troupe to a national audience. How did you begin to take an interest in opera? When I was about 11, my elder brother died from eating contaminated pork, and relatives took my father and me to traditional Hu opera performances to help him cope with the loss. Gradually I took a liking to Hu opera, an art form popular in areas along the Hui river, and I was hooked by the unique tunes and dazzling performances. I managed to learn a few basic tunes and even dreamed of a career performing Hu opera. How did it end up? One day I told my father about my aspirations; he shook his head and did not seem to think much of the idea. He sort of wondered aloud whether they would take me in, but I took that as encouragement. A few days later, I stopped an elderly Hu opera master at the backstage door to ask for an audition. It seemed to go well, and he promised to introduce me to the opera troupe's director. But they never got back to me. One day I confronted the opera master once again, and he suggested that I pursue a backstage career if I still wanted to be part of the business, hinting that an opera performer needed more than just good singing skills and a good physique - other aspects of appearance mattered, as well. That was when I realised I would never be on stage because of the smallpox scars on my face. Tell me a bit about your own art troupe. I've never given up my passion for opera. I learned how to play various opera instruments, and I also found the time to catch up with schooling, as I was still illiterate back then. It wasn't until after the Cultural Revolution that I started up my own opera troupe. Ironically, some opera masters became members of my troupe - including the opera troupe director who had rejected me. Unfortunately, the market for traditional opera has been waning since the reforms, and we were forced to cross over to the pop song and dance genre in 1987. You have only a limited education, but you've written award-winning scripts and even an autobiography. How hard was that? I have a certificate from a literacy class. I wrote my autobiography from 2001 to 2006, while I was on tour all over the country. I had to take every available minute, either in hotel rooms or dimly lit backstage areas, to look up the right word in the dictionary or write a sentence that suddenly popped into my mind. In that five-year period, I wrote 500,000 words. What kind of message did you try to get across in the book? Apart from my tumultuous and even extraordinary personal life, I wanted to tell people how a privately owned art troupe has been successful over the years and how we could stand firmly on our own feet while many major state-funded opera and art troupes fell apart. What has set your troupe apart? We valued stand-out artists with a merit-based remuneration system, and we learned to adapt to the market. For example, we began to face fierce competition in the 1990s from karaoke clubs and small video theatres. But we found new niches in restaurants, tea houses and multifunction bathhouses. Our artists also perform at business openings and anniversary functions. You used the word 'extraordinary' to describe your life; can you tell me a bit about that? My father was a police officer under the Nationalist Party regime. My mother was a Red Army officer before being forced to marry into a noble family as a concubine. My father's family helped her to escape in exchange for marrying him. As a result, I have gone through too many ups and downs politically over the years. I was jailed for three years largely due to my background. I lost my first wife to illness; my second wife was abducted and sold by smugglers to a villager in a remote region; and my third wife hanged herself when her family forced her to leave me. I was disillusioned before I settled down with my fourth wife, who is also a disciple of mine. Now my troupe has been doing well, and my wife - a rock singer - has become a celebrity in Anhui province and neighbouring regions.