An ambitious production rediscovers the youth of Kun Opera
The location: the old Suzhou Kun Opera Theater in the city of Suzhou, Jiangsu
Province, with more than 50 people hailing from Suzhou, Taiwan, and Hong Kong gathered in the main hall. The occasion: a concerted effort to revive Kun Opera (kunqu), the mother of all Chinese Opera, in its most traditional form. The result: a performance the likes of which China has not seen in over a century.
Kun Opera originated during the reign of Emperor Jiajing (1521-1567) of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). It has its roots in the music of the Kunshan district, near Suzhou. In the early 1500s, the musician Wei Liangfu blended popular Kushan tunes with other musical styles to create kunqu, meaning "the music of Kunshan." In 1560, Liang Chenyu used used kunqu to accompany his opera Laundering the Silken Yarn, producing the first true Kun Opera. Thus began the era of Chinese Opera, which in its many forms evolved largely from kunqu.
By the end of the century, kunqu had become China's most popular dramatic form. A number of Kun Operas became classics of Chinese literature, including Tang Xianzu's The Peony Pavilion and Kong Shangren's The Peach Blossom Fan.
But the years have not all been kind to the "elegant drama" (yabu). Kun Opera's highly refined, literary sensibilities gradually made it less appealing to the masses, which began to favor kunqu's brash younger sister, Peking Opera (jingju). By 1900, kunqu had nearly died out. Revived in part by the popularity of the opera Fifteen Strings of Copper, Kun Opera regained its footing in time to be all but wiped out by the “Cultural Revolution” (1966-1976). Only persisting interest in the art form in Taiwan and Hong Kong prevented its extinction. In 2001, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) named kunqu to the number one spot on its list of "Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity." This milestone event helped halt the decline of Kun Opera and bring new energy to the art form. New performances, such as Bai Xianyong's production of The Peony Pavilion, have attracted increasing attention. Still, kunqu remains largely overshadowed by the noisier spectacle of jingju and faces a time when Chinese Opera on the whole is losing ground to cinema, television and other elements of pop culture.
Hence the gravity of the meeting in Suzhou. In attendance were some of the finest talents remaining to Kun Opera, led by the much-admired director and human repository of kunqu knowledge, 77-year-old Gu Duhuang. Also taking part in the discussions was celebrated designer Yip Kam-Tim, an Academy Award winner for his work as art director for Ang Lee's film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The immediate subject on hand was the ambitious plan to produce a full-length, highly traditional version of Hong Sheng's kunqu masterpiece, The Palace of Eternal Youth, written during the reign of Kangxi (1662-1722), of the Qing Dynasty (1616-1911).
"When I first heard of this production," says Yip, "I really wanted to do something traditional. I wanted to do something to show the original beauty of Kun Opera." Gu Duhuang, long a champion of traditional Kun Opera, shared Yip's goals. "I am trying to keep the original elements of Kun Opera," he says. "The most original is the most avant garde."
In December, Beijing will witness the fruits of these artists' efforts. Featuring two of China's leading kunqu actors, Wang Fang and Zhao Wenlin the expert direction of Gu Duhuang, and the richly detailed costumes of Yip Kam-Tim, The Palace of Eternal Youth will expose the capital to this kunqu classic to an unprecedented degree. Though typically only a few arias, or zhezixi, of an opera are performed, in this case 28 of the opera's 50 scenes will be performed over three nights. Many of the chosen scenes have not seen the stage during the past 100 years.
Set during the Tang Dynasty (618 A.D.-907 A.D.), The Palace of Eternal Youth is the tale of the tragic love between the Emperor Tang Minghuang and his most favored concubine, Yang Guifei. Taught the music of heaven by the moon goddess Change, Yang Guifei enchants the emperor and the two become deeply enamored. Soon, however, a number of generals launch a rebellion, protesting Yang's influence over the emperor and the corrupt practices of her brother, Yang Guozhong, whom the emperor had made prime minister. To save the emperor, Yang acquiesces to the generals' demand for her life, and commits suicide. Even death cannot keep the grieving lovers apart, however, and the opera ends with their reunion in heaven.
"I think it is fair to say that The Palace of Eternal Youth is the ultimate piece of Chinese Opera," says Dr. Ceng Yongyi, a specialist in Chinese literature, who calls Hong Sheng's opera, "an ultimate expression of Chinese views about love."
"It is a touching tragedy of love," says Zhao Wenlin, who plays the emperor. "In history, Tang Minghuang is not regarded as a wise king, but in this production, he is first a man. Other emperors in Chinese history had many women, but Tang Minghuang had only one. It is not easy for a man to give his love to one woman if he possesses the countless beauties of a country."
The challenges involved with this massive undertaking were manifold. Lead actors Wang and Zhao began rehearsing two years in advance. "It's a big challenge for the performers in terms of physical energy," says Wang, who plays Yang Guifei.
"I fell into anxiety," says Zhao. "I knew what [this production] meant to me, to our troupe, and to the future development of Kun Opera."
Gu Duhuang was responsible for directing scenes not performed in recent memory, on a scale not seen in recent memory, all while justifying the financial support of investor Chen Qide, who funded the production. "I told him, 'You should prepare to lose money'," says Gu, "'It is not a popular art and only has limited audiences.' But he insisted on investing money for a large scale performance."
Designing the elaborate costumes for the opera proved another daunting task. Yip insisted on costumes that matched as closely as possible with the music of kunqu. "The most important element of Kun Opera is the music," he says. "The colors [of the costumes] have developed from the music - they've had a long time to mix together. I do not believe what are considered the traditional costumes today [which feature brighter, contrasting colors influenced by Peking Opera] are the correct form for Kun Opera."
Finding the talent to produce costumes matching Yip's high standards took months. "We scoured Suzhou looking for craftsmen and women," says Yip Kam-Tim. "The sheer volume of work and demand for only the highest quality, together with the fact that traditional embroidery skills are already slowly dying out, made this a particularly difficult task." One example of the work involved: a single Suzhou craftswoman took over two months to create one costume.
Naturally, all of those involved hope this performance of The Palace of Eternal Youth has a lasting, positive impact on the future of kunqu. "As a refined art form, it will always have its own fans and audience," says Gu, "Certainly these people form a small circle, but the temporary decline of Kun Opera can't prove anything."
"I am confident about kunqu's future," says Zhao, "I think this production will lead to more large-scale performances of kunqu."
For Kun Opera novices, Gu offers this suggestion: "The lyrics of the production are quite difficult to understand. But don't worry about that. Just be patient. Grasp the feelings from the performers' body language, their tones, the music, and the surroundings on stage. Try to seek the inner psychology of the characters."
"The production is slow in plot, in music, and in rhythm," adds Wang, "just like the small bridges, the flowing waters, and the elegant gardens in Suzhou. It is the inner feelings that the audience must capture. The feelings are the soul of Kun Opera."
The Palace of Eternal Youth runs from December 11-13 at Beijing's Poly Theater, with future performances scheduled in Hong Kong and France. Tickets (per night) are 100-600 yuan and 35 yuan for students. The performance is subtitled in Mandarin and English.
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Kun Opera is a blend of dramatic acting, singing, poetic recital, dancing, and martial arts. Unlike western operas, in which the focus is on vocals, kunqu actors utilize elegant dance movements and specific, stylized gestures to accentuate words spoken or sung. These movements also serve, in conjunction with costumes and hand-held props, to mime certain actions, such as riding a horse or sailing. The stage of a kunqu production remains largely bare of props or elaborate decoration.
Kunqu actors play specific, traditionally defined roles, including the young, unmarried woman (guimendan), the dignified, older man (laosheng), and the clown (chou). The actors' performance is accompanied by an orchestra of between six and ten musicians playing instruments such as the dizi (a transverse bamboo flute) and the pipa (a four-string lute).
Kun Opera differs from Peking Opera in many ways. Musically, the dizi is the lead accompaniment to kunqu singing, while jingju features a two-string spiked fiddle called a tihu for singing and a louder percussion section for action scenes. Peking Opera, which tends to be more blatantly entertaining than Kun Opera, often contains acrobatic maneuvers not seen in its counterpart. On the other hand, certain roles in jingju, such as that of the clown, rarely feature singing, while all roles in kunqu require vocal expertise.