‘Peony Pavilion’ to revitalize Kunqu opera in Shanghai

‘Peony Pavilion’ to revitalize Kunqu opera in Shanghai

From 55 acts to four, 18 hours to one, the modernized, abridged version of a 1598 opera by Tang Xianzu is hoping to revive the Kunqu opera style in Shanghai
Peony Pavilion
To help add modern elements to the “Peony Pavilion,” Xiao Lihe, one of the lead lighting engineers of the Beijing Olympic opening ceremony, was brought on to consult on everything from storyline to spotlights.

When locals hear the name Zhujiajiao, usually the response is, “Been there, seen that, fought those crowds already.”

This summer though, Shanghai’s “Peony Pavilion” is hoping to convince visitors that there’s something left to see in one of the most well-known Shanghai water towns. 

This outdoor weekly performance of a modernized 1598 opera by Tang Xianzu is evidence that traditional Kunqu opera can move with the times.

Kunqu opera, distinct from Beijing opera, was once one of the most well-known opera styles in China, recognized by UNESCO in 2001 as part of the world’s intangible heritage.

The art form has existed for centuries in and around Shanghai, as well as throughout the lower Yangtze River Delta. Today Kunqu, the original style of the "Peony Pavilion" opera, is in danger of disappearing from China’s stages, as people lose interest in traditional performance arts. 

Zhang Jun - “Peony Pavilion”The man behind the push to modernize Kunqun opera, Zhang Jun.Big names sign on

Performed in the Qing-style Kezhi Garden, the hour-long “Peony Pavilion” isn’t simply catering to Kunqu opera lovers. The show has been updated to appeal to a wider audience, hoping to revive the art. 

The most striking change is that instread of the full 18-hour long show, which was presented in 1999 at New York’s Lincoln Center Festival, the Zhujiajiao performance is only 60 minutes, condensed for the modern Chinese audience. 

Less time means a need for greater impact in those 60 minutes, so this time around, Oscar-winning composer Tan Dun and choreographer Huang Doudou, one of China’s most celebrated modern dancers, are both part of the abbreviated production.

The show is also part of the Shanghai 2010 Expo's cultural showcase of events. 

Although shortened, this version of the opera keeps to the traditional plot, focusing on the love story between Du Liniang and Liu Mengmei, and where their love began -- the peony pavilion.

Back to nature, not back to tradition

As the director, producer and leading actor of “Peony Pavilion,” Zhang Jun’s goal is simple: to create an original setting for a centuries-old tale. 

Zhang is at the forefront of the movement to save Kunqu, although he is one of the few professional artists remaining in the field. Today there are only six Kunqu opera troupes left in China.

Zhang and those like him hope that with bigger audiences -- and shorter, more up-to-date productions -- the number of those going into this art will increase as well. 

The show's original 55 acts have been reduced to four, while cultural experts such as well-known literary scholar Yu Dan, have been brought on to help maintain the beauty of the play’s original style and verse in such a compact space.

We present a classic Kunqu love story in the most original way possible in a way modern audiences will understand. We have to try new things, that’s the only way to revive Kunqu— Zhang Jun, director, producer and leading actor of “Peony Pavilion”

Kezhi Garden was chosen to be the locale of the opera because it offered a completely natural setting (a first for this kind of opera), allowing Zhang to blend modern outdoor and traditional elements in the show.

Kunqu's garden home

Originally named the Garden of Ma, Kezhi Garden was built by Ma Wenqing, a wealthy businessman in 1912 and it took 15 years to complete. Ma reportedly toured all gardens in eastern China and integrated Eastern designs and Western decor into a creation of his own.

According to the show's producers, Ma spent almost 300,000 liang of gold and silver (a liang is equally to roughly 50g) to build the original garden.

At home in this natural stage, the actor's songs are accompanied by simple string and wind instruments as well as drums. The show's continual soundtrack of running water and bamboo forests flows subtly from speakers hidden in the woods surrounding the audience. 

The stage is surrounded by a small stream of water, keeping with natural elements but also allowing the audience near the actors, and actively engaging the play and its players, again a new concept for Chinese opera.

By incorporating the nature into the opera, Zhang explains that it makes the audience feel like the actors and show have no boundaries, bringing audiences back to a time when Kunqu opera was in its prime.

“The reason we chose Kezhi Garden in Zhujiajiao is because of its unshakable status as a world-class garden and its classic feel. It takes people back to the time when these opera were first written and performed, so they can appreciate the best of what it has to offer.

“Getting rid of the frame of an indoor stage is radical as was departing the complicated theoretical showcase of Kunqu opera,” says Zhang.

But here, he continues, "we present a classic Kunqu love story in the most original way possible in a way modern audiences will understand. We have to try new things, that’s the only way to revive Kunqu."

"Peony Pavilion", Fridays at 6:15-8 p.m. (starting time subject to change according to the sun set time) through Oct. 31., Kezhi Garden, 119 Xijin Jie, Zhujiajiao, Qingpu district, +86 21 6267 7199, www.kunqumudanting.com