From the Associated Press
It's "The Peony Pavilion" on tour in Hong Kong _ a rare display of Kungqu _ among China's most sophisticated forms of traditional Chinese opera.
It's a far cry from the Britney Spears or Usher that modern-day Chinese-speaking youngsters typically bob their heads to. But Kunqu conservationists are hoping an updated version of a classic love story, performed by young actors, will help protect a more than 500-year old oral tradition classified by the U.N. as a "masterpiece of oral and intangible heritage of humanity" in 2001.
Peking Opera and Cantonese Opera are some of the better known forms of traditional Chinese opera. Kunqu, known as "the mother of 100 operas," predates and is credited as an influence to both forms.
It originated in the area of Kunshan in eastern China. Kunqu is Chinese opera performed in the local dialect of Kunshan.
Kunqu is known for its superb artistry, said Cheng Pei-kai, a Chinese culture scholar and consultant to "The Peony Pavilion."
"In its history of more than 500 years, especially in the most recent 400 years, its artistic accomplishment, meticulousness and detail is the best among Chinese traditional opera," he said.
Indeed, Kunqu is highly refined. In the latest touring edition of "The Peony Pavilion," the performers show off elaborate footwork and hand gestures over a nine-hour production. The lead actress is gentle, daintily curling her fingers while the male lead maneuvers his hands with more authority.
One sexually suggestive scene is expressed by the movement and entanglement of sleeves.
While Kunqu been performed continuously for more than five centuries, it was badly hurt by China's invasion by the Japanese and its internal political upheaval in the 20th century, which saw a civil war and brutal political campaigns launched by the victors of that war, the Chinese Communist Party.
Performers skilled in Kunqu became an endangered breed. There is only one living member of a generation of Kunqu masters trained in the 1920s. Their disciples are now in their 60s.
Sensing an urgency to preserve the tradition, famed Taiwanese novelist and Kunqu lover Kenneth Pai staged a new rendition of "The Peony Pavilion," one of the classics of the Kunqu canon written by Tang Xianzu, to cultivate a new generation of Kunqu actors and audiences.
He hired two Kunqu masters to teach a new generation of performers.
"It's a big problem. That's why I was so anxious to train the young actors," said Pai, also a retired Chinese literature professor who taught at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
It's not the first modern re-staging of "The Peony Pavilion." U.S. theater director Peter Sellars mounted an experimental, avant-garde version that debuted in Vienna in 1998. Sellars used TV monitors on stage and portrayed the lead characters as American teenagers. Chinese-American director Chen Shizheng produced a complete, 55-act, 20-hour version in New York in 1999.
Pai's version is a traditional rendition, but it's also tailored for the modern audience. It only comprises 27 scenes, runs nine hours, compared to Chen's 20, and it focuses on the love story in the play.
"The Peony Pavilion" is the story of Du Liniang, a daughter of an ancient Chinese official who comes back from the dead to unite with her love interest, scholar Liu Mengmei. The 1598 romance is something of a feminist statement for Du's determination to be with her true love Liu, in an age when arranged marriage was common.
Pai cast novices Yu Jiulin and Shen Fengying as Du and Liu.
Production director Wang Shiyu, the Kunqu master who trained Yu, said Yu and Shen were selected "using the standards of a beauty pageant."
The lead performers are "so youthful and beautiful," said Catherine Swatek, a University of British Columbia professor who wrote the book, "Peony Pavilion Onstage: Four Centuries in the Career of a Chinese Drama."
To make the high-pitched song of the actors more accessible, in the Hong Kong production, electronic boards by the stage displayed the lyrics in both English and Chinese.
Another factor of the play that may appeal to youngsters is Tang's flouting of sexual taboo. When Du meets Liu in a dream, the scholar openly flirts with Du. "Open the fastening at your neck/Loosen the girdle at your waist," Liu says. At least one past version of the play has been ruled "pornographic" by Chinese authorities.
Pai says the play so far has been a success, performing 72 times before more than 100,000 people across China, Hong Kong and Taiwan since its debut in April 2004. Now it's about to take on the U.S. with a tour of University of California campuses kicking off on Sept. 15.
Artistic Director Zhang Jiqing, who trained Du, said she and Wang are happy with the young actors' progress, which Pai characterized as "total transformation."
"As teachers, we are very relieved," Zhang said.
Published: Thursday, July 20, 2006
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