The Chinese Kunqu opera performance of the 400-year-old love story proved ancient culture is still very much alive
By Ko Shu-ling
Thursday, May 06, 2004,Page 16
When Kenneth Pai, producer of the Chinese Kunqu opera The Peony Pavilion, had the idea of China's top-caliber performers presenting the 400-year-old love story in Taiwan, he thought it would make a great hit.
He was not disappointed. The 9,000 tickets for the six performances in Taipei were sold out one month before it premiered at Taipei's National Theater last Thursday. The 1,000 tickets for the sole performance in Hsinchu yesterday were also sold out, two weeks in advance.
Dining at a Chinese restaurant in Taipei with two of the main characters and a few reporters on Tuesday, Pai attributed the success of the play to the performers -- particularly the male and female leads -- and his "principle of presenting the ancient art form."
"My principle is simple: No one, and that includes my sponsors, is allowed to tell me what to do with the presentation of the play -- not even a single hand movement of the performers," Pai said.
Of the two leads, who played Liu Meng-mei and Tu Li-niang, Pai said, "They did a wonderful job in bringing out the passion between the two lovers ... Among the many things I asked them to do was to bring a youthful vigor to the centuries-old story."
Pai, a well-known contemporary writer who does not deny rumors he is gay, has dubbed Kunqu opera his "second love affair" after writing, and called The Peony Pavilion "the most beautiful love story in Chinese literature."
The story was presented over three evenings and was approximately nine hours in length. It revolves around the love between Liu, a young student, and Tu, the daughter of a high official. In the first section, Tu has a dream in which she falls in love with Liu. When she awakes and discovers that her love was just a dream, she is inconsolable and "dies" of a broken heart.
In the second section, Liu visits the garden in which Tu had her dream and discovers a painting of her that she hid there before she died. He falls in love with her and learning that her grave is nearby, has her disinterred and discovers that she is still alive.
In the third section, Tu sends Liu to find her father. Liu, however, is mistaken as the desecrator of Tu's grave and is whipped. Tu then takes the case to the emperor, who after hearing of their love story, finally orders Liu and Tu to get married.
Shen Feng-ing, who played Tu, said her personality is like Tu's in that she sets a goal and goes for it.
"I'm not at all ashamed of telling people that I took the initiative to ask my husband out after we met," said Shen, 26, a native of Chiangsu Province, China.
Commenting on her partner and colleague of 10 years, Yu Chiu-lin -- who played Liu -- Shen said he is a "jovial little boy who loves fun and thrills." "He's the kind of guy who'd jump on a bicycle and enjoy himself pedaling away."
The youngest child and the only boy in a five-member family, Yu, a 26-year-old Chiangsu native, said he was overwhelmed by the passion of local audiences.
"I've performed in Japan, [South] Korea and Hong Kong but the crowd here in Taiwan is the greatest," he said. "I feel that they really appreciate our performance and the response I got from them was awesome." The fervor of the crowd even surpassed that in Suzhou -- the birthplace of Kunqu opera, Yu said.
According to Yu, there are about 100 Kunqu opera performers in Suzhou, while there are over 600 in China. Yu and Shen attended Chiangsu Province's Suzhou Kunqu Academy from the age of 16, where they trained for four years. They were hand-picked by Pai due to their picturesque stage appearances and sonorous voices.
"I'd have given up doing [The Peony Pavilion] if I hadn't found these two," Pai said. After the cast was chosen, the duo underwent what they called "hellish training" for over a year, under two of the leading lights of modern Kunqu, Chang Ji-ching and Wang Shih-yu, in Suzhou.
"The first two months was like hell," Shen said. "I left home at around six in the morning and didn't get home until 10 at night." Yu also broke his right knee during one rehearsal last winter, losing 100g of blood.
"Some of the girls almost burst into tears when they saw the blood coming through the two pairs of wooly trousers I was wearing," Yu said.
Yu and Shen may have suffered for their art, but the smiles and excited chatter from the audience leaving the National Theater earlier in the week made it all seem worth while.
Published: Thursday, July 20, 2006
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