Experimenting with Peony

In the final moments of a recent performance of “The Peony Pavilion”
here, a large cicada dropped onto the outdoor stage and buzzed around on its
back, threatening to invade the long silk robes of the two star performers. But
after a few gasps from the audience, the bug flew back into the trees, and a
beautiful new adaptation of a Kunqu opera masterpiece ended on a sultry summer

“That was close,” Zhang Jun, who
plays the male lead, Liu Mengmei, said with a grimace shortly after the

The production, presented in a
Ming-style garden, is an hourlong condensed version of a 1598 opera by Tang
Xianzu. The work was presented in all its 18-hour glory at the Lincoln Center
Festival in 1999 in a lavish production by Chen Shi-Zheng, which later
travelled the world.

The current show, with music by
Oscar-winning composer Tan Dun and choreography by Huang Doudou, one of China’s
most celebrated dancers, is Shanghai’s version of Shakespeare in the Park. It
is also the latest attempt to breathe new life into Kunqu, a colourful art form
that is sustained by government financing but is in danger of disappearing in
the wave of modernism now sweeping the nation.

This production’s creators say they
have tried to broaden the appeal of this opera by compressing its original 55
acts into four, while also trying to retain the sublime beauty of its style and

Kunqu opera, after all, is one of
the most venerated forms of traditional Chinese theatre, and for hundreds of
years it flourished near Shanghai, in the lower reaches of the Yangtze River

In this production of “The Peony
Pavilion” there are few props in the garden, which was built in 1912. The
singing is accompanied by string and wind instruments, drums and clappers, and
Tan’s recordings of new music and sounds, which emanate almost mysteriously
from speakers hidden in the woods.

“We have to experiment and try new
things,” Zhang, 35, said. “That’s the only way to revive Kunqu.”

Zhang has the credentials to
experiment. He began studying Kunqu opera at 12, when his mother took him to a
drama school test on a lark, just to see if he could pass it. Today he is
recognized as a national first-class performer. (He is also one of a dwindling
breed of Kunqu artists. There are six Kunqu opera troupes left in the country.
But rather than recruit students at 8 or 9, once considered the ideal age to
begin training, schools that teach traditional opera now enrol students as old
as 14. This is partly because parents are less willing to make sacrifices for
Kunqu’s uncertain future and also because they know the hardships associated
with such schooling.

“The training is really rough, just
like in the movie ‘Farewell My Concubine,”’ Zhang said in an interview after
his production, referring to the award-winning film by Chen Kaige. “I was constantly
criticized, no matter how hard I worked. Some kids were beaten.”
Zhang says he now wants to revive a dying art form. Not everyone is pleased
with the efforts to modernize or alter the form.

“Kunqu opera is doomed,” said Xie
Yufeng, who teaches Chinese literature at Nanjing University. “The genuine part
of Kunqu is being lost because in the past 20 or 30 years Kunqu artists have
been pursuing quick success. The newly created plays can rarely reach the level
of the classics.”

The original 55-act opera was
usually performed over several days. This production is 70 minutes long, just
enough time for Du Liniang to fall in love, die heartbroken, descend into hell
and then come back to life, to find the scholar in her dreams.

With cicadas buzzing in the summer
heat, Du Liniang twirls the long sleeves of her floor-length silk gown, and,
with her lover, turns to the audience (whose members rely on insect repellant)
and sings her final lines:
Toward this plum tree by the lawn,

If I were free to
pick my bloom or grass;
if I were to choose to live or die;
I would resign to fate without a sigh.

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