White make-up covering their aged faces, Chinese performers - all aged over 50 - don richly-coloured robes and false beards to belt out tunes passed down for more than two centuries. The ‘Flower Lantern’ Yunnan Opera troupe performs each day on a run-down stage, their droning instruments and melismatic singing mingling with sounds from a vegetable market next door. But just a few elderly spectators sit watching, a sign of waning interest in the art despite their efforts.

‘The situation is getting worse each year, our stage has moved seven times and each time it gets smaller,’ said He Zhengcai, the group’s 72-year-old director. Backstage with half-done make-up, he briefed each performer about the characters and plots for the afternoon’s two hour show.

He has six decades of experience, and many of the seven other actors, who looked in rusty mirrors to daub their faces with powder, are also veterans. ‘I normally inform everyone his or her role half an hour before the show. They prepare their lines while doing make-up.’ Similar to the better-known Peking Opera, the performances in Yunnan date back more than 200 years, with government officials declaring it part of the nation‘s Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2008. But He said the troupe generally only attracts audiences of around 30 people and makes little money from the shows. ‘Nowadays there are so many kinds of entertainment, young people are no longer interested in this art, and our audiences are old fellows in general.’

Zhong Huifang, 66, has performed the operas since she was a young girl. But she smiled about the company’s small box office takings. ‘No one here is coming for money, I just enjoy performing,’ she declared. The mostly aging audience seated on makeshift wooden benches was sparse, with some more interested in playing mahjong on tables beside the stage. Others watched for only a few minutes, snapping pictures on their smartphones before leaving. Group founder Gao Qinying, 75, says she is worried about the future. ‘I don’t think the group could survive another year,’ she said, calling for more government support as fans literally die off. ‘Five old friends used to sit there together, they came and sat on the same spot everyday,’ said Gao, pointing to some back row seats.