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August 27, 2013

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Born in the 1970s - Zhang Jun, 39

Zhang Jun, 39, picks up his coffee cup with the flourish of “orchid fingers.” It’s a bit of affectation where life imitates art.

With a little ponytail perched smartly on the top of his head, Zhang has the look of a hip-hop rapper. In reality, he is a superstar of Kunqu Opera, one of China’s oldest and most venerable opera styles.

“My dream is to bring Kunqu to an international stage so that people everywhere in the world can come to appreciate this ancient Chinese art,” he says. “Kunqu Opera needs to not only survive but also thrive. I have the responsibility because I’m part of it, and it’s part of me.”

Indeed. Zhang has been a driving force in the traditional opera for almost 20 years, taking lead roles in well-known favorites such as “Peony Pavilion,” “Palace of Eternal Youth” and “The Jade Hairpin.”

Kunqu, which dates back 600 years, has been designated an Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by the United Nations. In 2011, Zhang himself was honored as a UNESCO Artist for Peace in recognition of his long commitment to the operatic theater.

Zhang grew up in Shanghai’s suburban Qingpu District, the son of farmers with no particular artistic bent. At age 12, he was one of two children picked from among 2,000 to learn traditional opera.

He spent the next eight years in Shanghai in demanding training, called zuo ke, to learn the specialized vocals, eye expressions, hand gestures, acrobatic fighting, walking and acting that characterize the opera.

He and his fellow trainees ran around a playground for an hour every day before formal lessons started at 6am. From 8am to 10am, the class was required to practice leg kicks.

“It was so tiring that we sometimes had no strength left to eat,” Zhang recalls. “I always longed to hear my teachers say ‘good job,’ but they were strict masters not given to praise. Today I finally understand that and thank them.”

In 1994, the 20-year-old Zhang became a singer and actor in the Shanghai Kunqu Opera Troupe. There, his exceptional talent shone and he became known as the “prince of Kunqu Opera.” In 2007, he was promoted to deputy director of the troupe.

Attracting young generation

Two years later, however, he surprised everyone by quitting the state-owned troupe, over the objections of friends and colleagues.

“Life would have been very easy for me if I had stayed in the state system,” he admits. “But I found it rigid and unchanging. There was a voice in my head telling me to find my own way, to do something creative.”

At that time, Zhang says he was saddened to see the modern generation of youth snubbing Chinese opera. He recalls giving a performance of the “Peony Pavilion” in a large auditorium on the campus of a prestigious university. The audience seemed bored and unresponsive. A professor told Zhang afterward, “Your performance was great. The masters are great. But I’m sorry that my students don’t understand this art.”

Zhang says his dream was to revive the art among younger audiences. In 2009, he established the Shanghai Zhang Jun Kunqu Art Center, a non-profit organization and the first privately owned professional Kunqu Opera troupe in China.

The center aims to revive and popularize Kunqu by using more modern techniques. Zhang works with symphony orchestras, pop singers and modern musical instruments to adapt and reinterpret the operas. Performances are often given free. “Kunqu is still great, but our audience has changed,” he says.

The art center’s first endeavor was a new production of “Peony Pavilion,” with Oscar-winning composer Tan Dun as artistic director. The setting of the opera was moved to a more contemporary time.

The troupe performed the opera on a moonlit night in a garden in the water town of Zhujiajiao, using the scenic rocks, water and bridges as a magical backdrop to the ancient love story.

“I keep extremely faithful to the original version,” Zhang says. “I only have one principle — never add. I might cut some scenes, but I never add anything to the traditional script. Each step, hand expression, gesture and musical note is the same as our ancestors performed.”

The new production was a big hit, with more than 100 performances in ensuing years.

“This was great encouragement for me,” Zhang says. “People love Kunqu if it’s presented in a way that resonates with them.”

Taking his art to modern audiences has not been without criticism. When Zhang once performed a short Kunqu piece at a pop concert, he was attacked by newspapers for “disgracing an elegant art” and accused of wanting to “show off and make money.”

But the younger generation defended him. One young man wrote online, “Without your performance, I might never have seen Kunqu Opera.” Another wrote, “Though I didn’t quite understand what you were singing, it really was beautiful. I am now interested enough to want to see what Kunqu Opera is.”

Last November, Zhang’s troupe performed “Peony Pavilion” in the Astor Court of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The setting was modeled on a Ming-style courtyard in Suzhou.

“It was an awesome experience and a great success,” Zhang says.

The Met Museum performance was just the beginning of a world tour. Next year, Zhang and his team will perform in France, and the following year in Italy. He is scouting Chinese gardens in foreign countries for perfect locales.

“I’m a Kunqu Opera actor but even more than that,” he says. “Now I’m acting on a bigger stage. Kunqu is an artistic language that I can use to introduce China to the world. I’ll do everything I can do to carry it forward to future generations.”



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