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Kunqu Opera jazzed up and gilded

WHEN 500-year-old Kunqu Opera was listed by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage in 2001, Ke Jun's Kunqu theater was locking the doors during performances to stop members of the audience from leaving early and destroying performers' morale.

"But the audience once broke a door down and rushed to get away from the performance, which they just had no interest in," Ke recalls.

Ke, president of Jiangsu Provincial Kunqu Opera Theater, says he was ashamed to admit he was a Kunqu performer at that time.

Kunqu Opera, which first appeared near Kunshan in east China's Jiangsu Province, dates back to the mid-14th century during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

It is one of the oldest dramatic forms and considered the "mother of all operas" in China.

However, like other aspects of traditional Chinese culture, it was once on the verge of extinction because performers and opera lovers were aging.

Best known for the iconic "The Peony Pavilion," written by Tang Xianzu in the 16th century, Kunqu is now seeing a revival - despite the fact that young people find it difficult to understand because of the ancient and sophisticated method of expression.

Waiting to die

"The Peony Pavilion" is a love story about Du Liniang, 16-year-old daughter of a wealthy official, and Liu Mengmei, a talented but poor young scholar.

Du and Liu, who never met in reality, fall passionately in love and marry in Du's dream - she sleeps in the garden's Peony Pavilion.On awakening Du is heartbroken, fixates on her dream lover, wastes away and dies. Meanwhile, the young scholar later encounters her portrait and falls in love.

After Du's burial, her ghost tells Liu to unearth her body. Then Liu miraculously revives and the two marry in the real world.

Actually, it's a lot more complicated and the original version runs for 20 hours.

Like Du, the opera itself was dying a decade ago, but, unlike the heroine, it had no heroes ready to revive it, says Ke.

Performers were indifferent, he says, depressed by the deteriorating plight of Kunqu, but unwilling to make efforts to improve it.

Ke's theater used to be state-owned, and its expenses were covered by the government.

"Actors cared most about promotion and reaching a senior level," Ke says.

Roles were assigned mainly according to seniority and duration of employment at the state-run theater - not their skills. In 2001, the troop of 120 actors staged just 50 performances, earning a total of 90,000 yuan (US$13,235).

But in 2005, the theater was transformed into a corporation, with a mandate to be commercially successful and no longer rely on government subsidies. It was a pilot reform project in China's culture industry.

The adjustment was difficult for the entire troupe but they soon realized they had to win audience favor to bring in revenue.

The theater started to link performers' earnings to box office takings and offered incentives for outstanding young talent.

In 2006, 16-year-old Shan Wen was promoted to a principal performer, a position above more mature performers with years of experience, because of her outstanding skills.

The troupe varied each production to appeal to a wider audience, and created five variations of "The Peony Pavilion" to cater to different audiences.

A production for children included interactive elements; good-looking young performers and a compact story line were introduced for young people; and extravagant performances were maintained for older fans.

"Modern elements, such as the stage design and lighting, are novel to Kunqu performances," says 72-year-old actress Zhang Jiqing.

The theater is also soliciting sponsorship from local enterprises, and offering free performances to draw people in.

Ke's theater staged more than 500 performances in 2009, and earned about 4 million yuan.

"We are still struggling to make a profit, but we believe the situation will improve as the fan-base widens," Ke says.

For privileged group

A world away from Ke's transformed opera for the people, Wang Xiang, manager of a private company in Beijing, stages productions of "The Peony Pavilion" for a privileged minority.

Wang produces "Imperial Court" performances, which are staged every week in a theater converted from a 15th-century imperial granary of the Ming Dynasty.

In 2006 the Bach aficionado was smitten by the graceful beauty of Kunqu when he first saw "An Interrupted Dream," one of the highlight scenes of the play. He decided to produce his own version.

He believes his up-market productions are in keeping with Kunqu's origins among from the ancient seigneur families who maintained their own troupes to performs in their courts or gardens to entertain their families.

"I just wanted to revive this noble tradition," he says.

Maintaining the "noble" ambience, the theater has no stage. The audience is seated around the performance area and the performers move among them. Each performance is "unplugged" - there are no microphones or speakers.

A maximum of 70 people are admitted to each performance. Even the back row is just 7 meters away from the main performance area.

Wang says quality performances naturally call for high prices to cover costs and overheads.

Tickets range from 380 to 1,980 yuan (US$56-291). The only box, which seats seven people, costs 12,000 yuan.

However, when the Imperial Granary Production of "The Peony Pavilion" was launched in 2007, there was criticism that it was too "lofty."

Traditional arts would become totally meaningless if high prices kept the majority of people away, said an online commentary by Lu Shaogang at

"I hope the Imperial Granary Production performances will not turn into another vanity affair for the wealthy," said a posting by "Pengcheng" on

Wang dismisses such comments. "The beauty of Kunqu lies not only in its music and performance, but also in its literary script, and that can only be understood by a small proportion of very literate people. These include the city's wealthy elites who are interested in traditional Chinese arts," he says.

"We are trying to bring out the real value of Kunqu by offering the audience aesthetic enjoyment and offering the performers the audience's respect, and we are gradually getting recognized by the public."


The Imperial Granary Production of "The Peony Pavilion" has been staged more than 300 times since its launch three years ago, with total sales of nearly 20 million yuan.

"The greatest significance of our Imperial Granary Production is that it has proved that the traditional 'Peony Pavilion,' as well as Kunqu Opera, can survive well even in modern times, with or without government subsidies," Wang says.

Professor Zhou Qin, a Kunqu expert at Suzhou University, acknowledges the difficulties of keeping the art form alive.

He recalls how "The Peony Pavilion" was staged at a university and students burst into laughter when Liu called his lover Du "my sister," as was the custom when the opera was written in the 14th century.

But Professor Zhou is happy that more "black-haired" (Chinese) young people are coming to Kunqu.

Rigid adherence to tradition will only discourage audiences, says Zhou.

Adaptation is necessary for Kunqu in an evolving society, as long as core traditions, such as the music, rhythms and stories, are maintained, Zhou says.

"To attract more young people, we should make Kunqu elegant and interesting, rather than strike a take-it-or-leave-it attitude," he says. "But we should also be cautious about the changes to avoid impairing Kunqu's unique charm."

Zhou says debate over the "popular" and the "lofty" Kunqu versions is irrelevant. "The most important thing is that more people are interested in Kunqu Opera, and this brilliant tradition is being passed on to the next generation."


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