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China's very own 'Romeo and Juliet'

A new modern interpretation of one of China's most traditional Kunqu Opera classics, "The Peony Pavilion," is set to be staged next month in time to receive honored guests for the World Expo 2010 Shanghai.

Dubbed China's very own "Romeo and Juliet," producers Tan Dun and Zhang Jun aim to incorporate the paradoxes of traditional meets contemporary, East meets West in this new version.

Born during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Kunqu Opera boasts a 600-year history and is known as the "mother" or "teacher" opera because of Kunqu influence over other Chinese art forms including Peking Opera.

In the past, Kunqu Opera was exclusively performed in natural gardens for the enjoyment of emperors, concubines and other royal guests. This modern version aims at echoing this ancient tradition by bringing "The Peony Pavilion" away from the stage and into the natural setting of Kezhi Garden in Zhujiajiao Watertown.

Just like the new interpretation of the opera, Kezhi Garden is a combination of Chinese and Western influences and integrates both traditional and modern garden styles.

Zhang, one of China's top Kunqu Opera artists and artistic producer of "The Peony Pavilion," says: "I see no other place that can better accommodate the beauty of Kunqu Opera than an exquisite garden. Off the stage and into the scene, it's the only means to walk into this endless love story."

The idea is to encapsulate the pure, natural and raw love that develops between the characters of this ancient love story.

The most famous of all Kunqu Opera works, "The Peony Pavilion" tells the story of the love between Du Liniang, the daughter of a high-ranking official and a poor young scholar named Liu Mengmei. Kept apart by circumstance the story mirrors that of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet."

Producer and artistic director of this contemporary version of "The Peony Pavilion" is Grammy and Oscar-winning composer and conductor Tan.

Tan says that in keeping with the pure, undisturbed love that develops within the story, lighting, instruments and props will be kept to a minimum.

By imitating only natural sounds and visuals the idea is that the audience will not simply spectate but rather be encapsulated into the love story and the beauty of the surrounding gardens.

"In the garden lie my instruments," he says. "Water as strings; birds as flutes; the wind through brass and so much more."

Tan and Zhang plan to have just a six-piece orchestra playing traditional Chinese instruments.

The lighting is also being kept simple with performers illuminated by lanterns that will be hand held and positioned by other cast members.

Set to be a big hit, one expat living in Shanghai says: "This is bound to be popular. With the Expo placing such great emphasis on the future, many people will find the chance to experience an art form particular to China's appealing past, especially when it's set to have such beautiful and unique staging."

Only showing on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays between June and October, guests should expect not only a traditional Chinese play in an original setting, but also the opportunity to enjoy Chinese ritual and hospitality.

Guided to your seats by lanterns, guests will be welcomed with Chinese tea and relieved from the summer's heat by paper fans, just like royalty in ancient times.

The play will be an intimate affair with only 200 seats available per night. Ticket prices are not set yet.


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