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December 5, 2010

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The revival of Kunqu opera starts with one man

On a Kunqu opera stage, Ke Jun is dressed in a traditional costume with a hat and his face covered in heavy make-up.

Each step he takes is careful and each verse he sings is precise. It's exactly how his master taught him, and how his master's master learned. This is how Kunqu opera has been passed on for more than 600 years.

On another stage, Ke plays the same character, but this time he's wearing a Western suit and only light make-up.

He still moves carefully in the style of Kunqu opera, but it's different. This time it is based on how he feels on the day rather than on strict rules. Each day, the performance changes somewhat. He may focus more on hand gestures in one performance and emphasize modern-dance-like movements in another.

He doesn't sing at all, as he is backed by a pre-recorded sound theater, combined with verses from Kunqu opera and all kinds of sounds such as birds chirping, waves washing against the shore or a train in motion.

Both performances are called "Flee by Night." The first is a traditional Kunqu opera while the second is an experimental drama based on the original.

Ke, the 45-year-old president of Jiangsu Performing Arts Group Kunqu Opera Theater in Nanjing, is unique in the world of Kunqu Opera as he has mastered the two distinct styles. He has won the Plum Blossom Award (2005), given by the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles and the China Theater Association. It is the top award in the Chinese opera world. He has also won the Award of Cultural Excellence (2004), handed out by the Ministry of Culture.

Ke performs both strictly regulated classics and abstract experimental pieces. He also writes and directs some experimental dramas involving Kunqu opera settings, stories and skills.

Yet he hasn't followed the trend of combining traditional with modern. For Ke, the two styles are distinct.

"I consider myself leading two teams, an archaeological one and an expedition, but I shall never mix the two," Ke told Shanghai Daily.

"We revive and perform traditional Kunqu opera just like archaeologists dig out antiques and put them on display in museums. And we explore the endless possibilities in drama with the skills of Kunqu opera, just like well-trained adventurers challenge high mountains or mysterious jungles."

Ke has devoted himself to both disciplines since becoming president of the theater in 2004, before he turned 40, exceptionally young in the Chinese opera world.

At that time, three years after Kunqu opera was selected as a UNESCO Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage, the art form was on the verge of extinction, like other traditional Chinese arts such as shadow drama.

For Kunqu opera, all traditional pieces are passed on orally from master to protégé. So when an old master dies, pieces are often lost. Over the centuries, thousands of Kunqu operas have been lost. About 600 still exist, but many haven't been performed in years due to a lack of staging opportunities. Less than 10 of the 600 pieces were performed regularly around 2001.

At this time, the theater, like the other six Kunqu opera theaters, was merely surviving and actors were barely making enough to live.

"Yes, the opera was selected as an intangible heritage, and much attention has been given to it since then," Ke said. "But it was only the opera, not the performers. What's the significance of maintaining an intangible heritage when the artists keeping it alive can't even survive?"

"I want the actors to live well and happily, and then I want them to perform the opera as often as possible."

He started reforming the theater by changing the way actors are paid. Ke replaced the fixed salary system to one that is based on box office receipts. Ke also required veteran and leading actors to learn other pieces. This forced actors to track down old masters so that they could learn more pieces. Ke also organized competitions among young actors.

It has worked.

The theater has since revived more than 200 traditional Kunqu opera pieces, in the process recording them and performing them frequently.

"This is how we can attract an audience and keep it. After all, it is a form of drama and you need to have it played on stage to show its real beauty and value," Ke said.

When they first started a weekend theater to perform traditional Kunqu operas - admission was free - they had to lock the door to prevent spectators from leaving early due to boredom. Some members of the audience became so agitated that they broke the gate to leave.

Fast-forward a few years and Kunqu opera is now trendy in Nanjing and has been a box office success for the past three years. Each weekend, fans from all over the world gather in the venue to appreciate the art in its traditional forms.

The theater also provides live broadcasts of its weekend shows online at

"When we preserve the traditional pieces, we preserve it as though it were an antique. You will never change anything on an antique," Ke said.

"So all you do is to show it more frequently to change the perception. Many people thought Kunqu opera was boring, but they have discovered the unique aesthetics from it over the time, after seeing it often enough."

Ke adds that all his actors now earn about the same as office workers in Nanjing, a big improvement from six years ago.

While famous for having revived and performed many almost-lost traditional pieces, Ke continues to be a pioneer with experimental dramas.

"It is necessary to innovate and expand Kunqu opera as the market has changed. But first, we need to get people into the theater," Ke said.

He has done so with the experimental stage, where he takes off the heavy costumes and make-up, and uses Kunqu opera techniques to explore new possibilities.

In traditional Kunqu opera, Ke is known as one of the best performers of Lin Chong, the protagonist of the opera piece "Flee by Night," often considered the most difficult character to portray.

The entire opera involves just one character. It requires the actor to depict Lin's stories and internal struggles solely through his movements and vocals.

The opera is based on the classic Chinese novel "Water Margin," about how "108 Liangshan heroes," once legitimate citizens from various social classes, were forced to become outlaws in the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

Lin, one of the main characters in the novel, was chief instructor of the emperor's 800,000 imperial guards before he was framed and persecuted by malicious court officials.

"Flee by Night" takes place the night Lin decides to flee and join the outlaws. It depicts his internal struggles of reluctantly leaving a top government post to become an outlaw.

Ke has taken this opera and adapted it for the experimental drama "Hide Away," which he wrote and directed. It begins with Ke as an actor in modern clothes who transforms into Lin through costumes and make.

Instead of exquisite vocals, Lin writes calligraphy on stage. He keeps writing one character, "tong," meaning homogenous, over and over in different styles to see how the character can be seen homogeneously by both him and the audience.

Eventually, Lin falls down due to physical and mental exhaustion. This changes his writing completely. It visualizes the internal struggle of trying to be unique in a society that demands conformity. This is what Lin experienced in the novel and what Ke has experienced as an artist.

"I enjoy performing in both traditional and experimental dramas," Ke said. "In the traditional one, I see myself as a great tool and medium that truthfully carries the 600-year-old aesthetics in me. And in experimental ones, I can express my own emotional struggles."

Now he is working on a project commemorating the 400th anniversary (in 2016) of William Shakespeare and Kunqu opera author Tang Xianzu, under the working title "A Conversation between Tang Xianzu and Shakespeare."

"I would love to have them talk about everything, especially about they would write in modern times. I imagine it would be really great," Ke said.


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