Peony Pavillion

Background & Overview

Five years ago UNESCO proclaimed Kun opera (also known as Kunqu, pronounced “kwun chyu”) a "Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity." Kunqu originated in Ming Dynasty in Kunshan of Jiangsu Province and is the oldest extant form of Chinese opera. This art form, which combines singing, dancing, gesture, and recitation, dominated Chinese theater from the sixteeenth to the eighteenth centuries.

It is ironic that when UNESCO made its proclamation Kunqu was on the brink of extinction. All of its masters were over sixty years of age, and the few schools that taught Kunqu attracted a meager number of students. But in the years since then, Kunqu has enjoyed a renaissance. It is now performed professionally in seven cities on the Chinese mainland (Beijing, Shanghai, Suzhou, Nanjing, Changsha, Wenzhou, and Hangzhou), as well as in Taipei, Hong Kong and Macau. Amateur opera societies are active in many other cities in China and abroad (including in Los Angeles), and mainland companies occasionally tour.

The main vehicle for the revival of Kunqu has been the sixteenth-century Ming dynasty classic by Tang Xianzu (1550-1616), Peony Pavilion, a timeless romance that shares with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet the magic and power of youthful love. And like Romeo and Juliet it celebrates the capacity of love to conquer ossified social conventions. When it was published, Peony Pavilion was very controversial because of its views on women, sex, and marriage. At a time when women were supposed to be submissive, the heroine, Liniang, is a strong woman who actively pursues the man she loves. In a culture given to conservative views about sexual relations, the story is remarkable for its strong, erotic undertones. And in a society where arranged marriages had been the norm for centuries, the story flies in the face of convention by having the young lovers united in a marriage -- based on love -- that they themselves have chosen, without any outside intervention. It should be added that this love-conquers-all liberation from conventions not only earned Peony Pavilion condemnation in earlier times, but in recent years has also led some self-styled critics on the mainland to attack various versions of the play as “pornographic.” Of course, it is precisely the liberating message of Peony Pavilion that has made it immensely popular with audiences down through the centuries.

Peony Pavilion and Romeo and Juliet also alike in the beauty of the language in which they are written. Both possess an extraordinary evocative power characterized by wonderfully inventive words, powerful rhythms, and vivid descriptions.

Modern Versions of Peony Pavilion

The rebirth of Kunqu owes much to artists who have painstakingly revived the art, in many cases reinterpreting it for modern audiences. In 1998, U.S. director (and member of the faculty at UCLA) Peter Sellars mounted an experimental, avant-garde, boundary-crossing version of Peony Pavilion that debuted in Vienna and then toured widely. This version was in English (although the text was faithful to the original); the music, by composer Tan Dun, however, was entirely new. (A soundtrack, under the name of Bitter Love, is available from Sony Records. The Sellars production used TV monitors on stage and portrayed the lead characters as American teenagers.

In 1999 Chinese-born director Chen Shizheng produced a complete, 20-hour, 55-act version, commissioned by the Lincoln Center Festival, which premiered in New York, and then toured to Caen, Paris, Milan, Perth, Aarhus, Vienna, and Berlin. This was perhaps the first full-length staging in three hundred years. Visit site for more information ».

No one has been more indefatigable, nor more influential, in reviving the art of Kunqu than Kenneth Pai (Pai Hsien-yung / Bai Xianyong), a renowned Chinese-born Taiwanese author and emeritus professor of Chinese literature at UC Santa Barbara. Pai says he fell in love with Kunqu at an early age. Decades ago he participated in two productions of Peony Pavilion: in 1983, when two scenes of the opera were staged; and in 1992, when he took Hua Wenyi, formerly of the Shanghai Kunqu Opera Troupe and now residing in the Los Angeles area, to Taiwan, to star in a two-and-a-half-hour production. Both of these were abridged versions, and in Pai’s view, unavoidably lacked the comprehensiveness and cohesion essential to capturing the full majesty of the Ming dynasty original script. Thus, Pai undertook to create an adaptation that is not only cohesive but is suited to modern tastes and yet remains faithful to the original, including all the traditional performance practices of Kunqu.

In 2003, Pai spent five months editing the original script by Tang Xianzu and created a 125-aria, 27 scene program program to be performed over nine hours in three performances. (The original Tang Xianzu version was nothing less than a marathon, involving 403 arias, 55 acts, and 20 hours of performance.) Pai calls his version the “Young Lovers’ Edition,” for it concentrates on the play’s story of love between sixteen-year-old Liniang and twenty-year-old Mengmei. The description “Young Lovers’ Edition” is also fitting for two other reasons. First, the main audience Pai wanted to reach was university students, for it is primarily on their shoulders that will fall the task of understanding, interpreting, and preserving humanity’s cultural legacy. Second, the performers are all young people. To groom them for performing at the most exacting and highest levels, Pai gathered together Kunqu scholars and retired performers from the "three shores" (mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong) and began a rigorous program of training at the Suzhou Kunqu Opera Company.

Pai explains that the two young lead performers (Yu Jiulin as Mengmei, and Shen Fengying as Liniang) were chosen for their "jade-like appearance, voices, posture, and acting." He adds that traditionally the lead performers were middle-aged veterans of countless performances, straining the imagination of the audience. Pai chose to break with this theatrical tradition in order to "give new life to the art form, to cultivate a new generation of Kunqu aficionados, and to offer respect to playwright Tang and all the master artists that came before. Kunqu must continually be youthful in its performance, presentation, and legacy."

Under the guidance of two venerable masters of the Kunqu operatic form -- Wang Shiyu and Zhang Jiqing -- the young performers were put through a year of rigorous training and rehearsing, coming on top of four years of prior training and performance. Each and every detail of the art direction, costumes, musicians, props, and stage were mulled over by Pai's team to ensure that this Peony Pavilion displays the full splendor of the original.

Performances of the Young Lovers’ Edition of Peony Pavilion began in the National Theater in Taipei on April 29, 2004, and have continued since then to be staged all across China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. And now Kenneth Pai and the Suzhou Kunqu Opera Company bring this magnificent production to audiences in California.

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