Kunqu comes alive

Younger audiences and international exposure benefit the opera style. Chen Nan reports

In 2001, when Kunqu Opera was listed as one of the masterpieces of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity by UNESCO, Yang Fengyi, artistic director and head of the Northern Kunqu Opera Theatre, travelled with her performers to UNESCO headquarters in Paris to witness the historic moment.

They demonstrated the ancient art form through a short performance. One of the actresses received a note from an audience member after the show, telling her how beautiful she was onstage and how beautiful Kunqu Opera was.

"It was a very meaningful gesture," Yang says. "Despite the language barrier and cultural differences, the audience appreciated the art form. The reception it got showed us that contemporary audiences can enjoy the art form, even though it is about 600 years old."

In 2008 UNESCO inscribed Kunqu Opera on the representative list of intangible cultural heritage of humanity.

Kunqu Opera, one of the oldest traditional opera forms still performed in China, was born in the region of Kunshan in what is today Suzhou, Jiangsu province. It has distinguished itself by the virtuosity of its rhythmic patterns and has exerted strong influence on all the more recent forms of opera in China, such as Peking Opera.

Combining songs performed in the Suzhou dialect, graceful body movements, martial arts and dance, Kunqu Opera uses a seemingly endless variety of gestures to express specific emotions.

Like many traditional Chinese art forms, Kunqu Opera has faced competition from mass culture and a lack of interest among young people, but the recognition by UNESCO put Kunqu Opera in the international spotlight at the same time as it began to experience a domestic revival.

"Of all the rich and diverse traditions of Chinese opera, Kunqu Opera is one of the most beautiful and best-known among Chinese audiences," says Fu Jin, a professor at the National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts in Beijing. "It includes many aspects of traditional Chinese culture such as philosophy, religion, social values and lifestyle."

Kunqu Opera pieces are closely linked with Chinese literature, Fu says. For example, one of the best-known and most-performed pieces is The Peony Pavilion, written by the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) playwright Tang Xianzu, who is often compared to William Shakespeare.

What excites Fu is that Kunqu Opera has been attracting a growing young audience that sees the art form as deep, elegant and sophisticated.

A youth version of The Peony Pavilion, the fruit of a collaboration between Suzhou Kunqu Opera Theatre and the Chinese American writer Kenneth Hsien-yung Pai, is considered another major contributor to the development and revival of the art form.

The production premiered in 2003 and has made a big mark, having been performed more than 400 times in the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong and Macao, as well as in countries such as Greece, the United Kingdom and the United States, being seen by a combined worldwide audience of about 800,000. Thanks to shows staged at universities across the country at that time, Kunqu Opera became very popular, especially among young people.

"Since the beginning of the 21st century, Kunqu Opera had faced a decline, with veteran Kunqu Opera performers retiring, audiences aging and fewer young people willing to learn and enjoy the old art," Pai, 85, says. "I am a big fan of Kunqu Opera and I was worried."

The performers in the 2003 youth version of The Peony Pavilion were all in their early 20s, and 70 per cent of the audience consisted of young people, he says.

"That was a very promising sign, and I was very happy."

A recent production of The Peony Pavilion by the Shanghai Kunqu Opera Troupe, 55 acts spanning eight hours, has also made headlines. From March 8 to 10, the production was staged at the China National Opera House in Beijing, with tickets selling out in a few days.

It was the first time that the renowned Shanghai company had presented The Peony Pavilion in its entirety.

Hu Weilu, an actress in her early 30s, plays the leading role in the show. "When I started my training as a Kunqu Opera performer in 1999, there were few shows and few people in the audiences," she says.

"I performed whenever I could, paid or not, hoping that one day I could experience the real stage. Now we have many fans. Some are extraordinarily enthusiastic, having their photos taken with us and following us as we tour the country."

Fang Qian, 20, who studies world history at Capital Normal University, is a big fan of Kunqu Opera.

Since watching her first Kunqu Opera performance in 2018, Fang, who was born and raised in Beijing, has learned about Kunqu Opera and has been an enthusiastic promoter of the art form among friends. She is the head of the university's Kunqu Opera group, which has more than 100 members and holds activities twice a week.

"Kunqu Opera is like a seed that has been planted," she says. "The more I learn about it, the more I expand my knowledge about other aspects of traditional Chinese culture, such as literature, calligraphy, music and painting. It's like a full circle, allowing me to explore the roots of my culture."

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