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January 13, 2012

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Kunqu Opera star inspires young talent

FOR the past 50 years, Kunqu Opera star Zhang Jingxian has taken famous roles such as concubine Yang Yuhuan in "The Palace of Eternal Youth" and Lady Du Liniang from "The Peony Pavilion."

But her favorite character is the powerful and determined Ban Zhao (Century 45-AD116), China's first known woman imperial historian, a Confucian scholar and philosopher who compiled "Han Shu" ("History of the Han Dynasty).

The original Kunqu Opera "Ban Zhao" is considered one of Zhang's representative works, depicting Ban from the age of 14 to 71, with varied vocal and performing styles.

"Ban influenced me greatly with her perseverance, purity and internal power," said 65-year-old Zhang of the Shanghai Kunqu Opera Troupe. "As a Kunqu Opera performer, I have a responsibility to share traditional arts and intangible cultural heritage."

Born in to a local intellectual family, Zhang began learning Kunqu Opera when she was 12 years old. When she graduated from theater school in 1966, she was forced to suspend her career during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76). When the Shanghai Kunqu Opera Troupe reopened in the 1980s, Zhang was again permitted to perform.

Kunqu Opera dates back around 600 years and Zhang says that it still has great vitality, so it is unnecessary to try to popularize it and please audiences by adding too many modern elements.

Shanghai has great tolerance for different cultures and peoples and so does Kunqu Opera, she said. "Although most operas are based on ancient stories and legends, there is still an emotional connection between the plays and our own era and people. The characters' destiny still resonates in the hearts of today's audiences," she said.

Zhang has performed around the world and lectured about Kunqu Opera, making it more accessible to foreign audiences. In the late 1980s, Zhang staged "Notes of Blood," the Kunqu version of "Macbeth," at the 41st Edinburgh International Festival. Combining the original plot with Kunqu performing arts was applauded by the audience and critics.

"Art has no boundaries," Zhang said. "Foreign people find it easier and more interesting to learn about traditional Chinese theater through adaptation of Shakespeare's classics."

For her efforts to rejuvenate the art, Zhang received the 7th Plum Blossom Prize, China's highest theatrical award. She is ranked as State First-Class Artist.

Now as an art director of the opera troupe, Zhang also nurtures young artists, including a number from the post-80s generation.

Yu Manwen, the young theater director, praises Zhang's energy, modesty and diligence.

Since 2008, Yu and Zhang have promoted Kunqu Opera to city university students, offering training courses, holding Kunqu Opera festivals and setting up campus archives of opera.

"We're glad there are many loyal young fans in the city, who can occupy more than 80 percent of the seats in a show," Yu said. Young people are first attracted to the elegance and exquisite artistry of the opera and later learn about its rich culture, she said.

Zhang and Yu are now working on an album featuring costumed Kunqu Opera actors against a backdrop of Shanghai's famous landmarks, such as the Bund, Peace Hotel and Sanshan Guild Hall. It will trace the development of opera in the city and Zhang herself will be featured. It will be released in summer during the Shanghai Book Fair.

She will also star this year in a high-definition Kunqu Opera film "The Palace of Eternal Youth," which will document the unique vocals and performance styles of celebrated opera masters.


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