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Stripping opera down to its bare essentials

Fans of traditional Kunqu Opera, and even non-fans, are familiar with the lavish costumes, elaborate stylized gestures, heavy detailed makeup, opulent settings, props such as fans - each movement significant - and usually compelling music.

Many younger people these days find traditional opera too long, drawn out, boring and taxing for spectators.

But Danny Yung believes tradition can be reworked into something new and stimulating, through deconstruction.

He has thus stripped Kunqu Opera down to its basics, to its essence, he says. Costumes are mostly gone, sometimes replaced by modern clothes. Gone is the makeup, most props, dramatic stage sets and powerful music.

Yung once asked his leading Peking Opera actor to perform naked (except for a bit of underwear), but people focused too much on lack of costume and not enough on ideas, he says. In his pieces, artists may sing without accompaniment, "exposing their naked voice."

The result of deconstructing and mixing things up dramatic, powerful. Some love it, some hate it. Some don't understand at all.

Yung's most recent experimental deconstructed Kunqu Opera, "Flee By Night," with reworked scenes, is performed in simple costume, with no props, no fancy backdrop, not much music.

It is the third in Yung's "Experimental Traditional Chinese Opera Trilogy," which includes "The Outcast General" (2006) and "Tears of Barren Hill" (2008). "Tears" won UNESCO International Theatre Institute's Music Theatre NOW award.

Of Yung's more than 100 works, many involve traditional operas - either as modern takes on classics or as elements within other works. He's fascinated, finding layer on layer of meaning.

"The heritage is so profound, the storyline is just one part, narrative is another, and stage combination is the third, plus lots of other elements - all are very stimulating," he says.

Yung's Experimental Trilogy pieces are bold attempts to remove the staples of sheng (aural) and se (visual) elements and replace them, at least partly, with non-traditional ones. Or to combine and juxtapose them up in ways heretofore untried.

This forces the audience, which is familiar with traditional opera, to experience a new way of hearing and seeing.

As an example, Yung cites his reworked "Tears of Barren Hill."

"I kept thinking about how to do the water sleeve," he says, waving and turning his hand. "Then we took the sleeve away and only focused on the hand movement. We suddenly found the way the hands waved was so beautiful. Only through deconstruction can we see all these interesting things; but as a viewer you can only see the result."

Thus, in some experimental operas, actors do traditional movements not in gowns with long sleeves, but in modern clothes, allowing viewers to see the movements in a new light. Instead of wearing facial makeup, the actors wear no makeup at all as they project their facial features, sing and move.

Instead of conveying emotion through eye movements enhanced by makeup and performance technique, actors may perform blindfolded.

Instead of using a set tempo, actors may sing the same tune much more slowly, thus completely altering the long-established musical identity.

Yung has used these deconstruction devices to create a new Chinese theater, which nevertheless is rooted in traditional opera. He is convinced that deconstruction frees both the performers' awareness of expressive possibilities and the audience's perceptions.

"We have to deconstruct what we have in front of us. Perhaps that will inspire us in theater of the future," Yung says. "In fact, during the process of deconstruction we are also learning how to build a new relationship with our past.

"Artists should not be afraid to experience new experience. When you cross the boundary, you reach a new way of reexamining yourself," Yung says.


In his award-winning "Tears of Barren Hill," inspired by Peking Opera master Chen Yanqiu's brief visit to Germany in 1932, Yung pondered cross-cultural exchange.

"As one of China's best dan (male playing female) performers, Chen's cross-casting was in itself a kind of crossing the boundary between genders, and his European trip could be seen as another crossing - crossing over territory and culture," says Yung.

In "Tears," Yung challenged the traditional concept of cross-casting by asking the lead player, actress Shen Xiaomei, to play Chen Yanqiu and then dress up in female costume to play Chen's dan role. A woman playing a man playing a woman.

"Double cross-casting," says Yung, is a challenge not only to the performer, but to the audience.

"Nearly 80 years ago, Chen already tried many new things - putting Li Bai's and Du Fu's poetry to Western tunes, singing Western music in Kunqu and Peking operas and incorporating modern dance elements into the 'water sleeve'," says Yung.

"What a creative person! But look at today's Peking and Kunqu Opera artists - no one would want to do this. Our ideas and views are actually lagging far behind Chen's!"


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