Artists from the Suzhou Kunqu Opera Theater of Jiangsu Province perform The Interruption of a Dream from The Peony Pavilion at King's College, University of Cambridge on Monday. (Photo: Sun Wei/GT)
Cambridge audience enjoyed an oriental culture feast featuring classic Chinese opera The Peony Pavilion on Monday evening.
Performers from the Suzhou Kunqu Opera Theater of Jiangsu Province performed A Walk in the Garden and The Interruption of a Dream from The Peony Pavilion and Fifteen Strings of Cash - The Killing of Mr. You at Cambridge's King's College. They also showed and explained the Kunqu Opera make-up and performance in a workshop, giving the audience a taste of Kunqu Opera charm.
Cai Shaohua, the theater troupe's director, told the Global Times, "The commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the death of playwrights Tang Xianzu and Shakespeare gives us a wonderful opportunity to showcase China's Kunqu Opera culture."
The Peony Pavilion, one of the most well-known works of famous Chinese playwright Tang Xianzu, is also a representative Kunqu Opera that takes love as its theme.
The Cambridge Kunqu Opera night was part of the Kunqu Opera Theater's week-long performance in universities and theaters across the UK aimed at building a platform for cultural exchange.
"We are trying to set out some proper links between King's College of Cambridge University and Kunqu Opera Theater, making it an annual event," Alan Macfarlane, emeritus professor of anthropological science and a Life Fellow at King's College, told the Global Times.
Opera for everyone
Cai said things felt different compared to eight years' ago, when his troupe first performed in the UK.
"This time we are not only performing. We have come to discuss the extensive aspects of theater, academy and culture with the British audience, scholars and students," Cai said, adding that he finds dialogues with world-class universities inspiring.
Kunqu Opera is called "the mother of traditional Chinese Opera," as many other types of traditional Chinese opera developed from it. One of the oldest still surviving forms of Chinese Opera, it originated and became popular in Kunshan, Jiangsu Province at the end of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) and the beginning of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
Kunqu Opera was listed in May 2001 among the "Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity" by UNESCO.
Xu Yaoxin, director of the Jiangsu Provincial Department of Culture, said that Tang's works helped Kunqu Opera go global.
Tang's four major dramas, collectively known as the "Four Dreams of Linchuan" were originally written for Yihuang operas in Tang's hometown of Linchuan, Jiangxi Province. While Yihuang Opera has been lost to history, Kunqu Opera performers 400 years ago found Tang's dramas a perfect fit for Kunqu Opera. Their adaptations of his works were an instant success and began to spread all over the country, Xu explained.
Kunqu Opera is very lyrical, the singing is melodious and moving, the movements are exquisite, soft and graceful, and the singing and dancing are combined in an ingenious and harmonious way. The musicians use traditional Chinese instruments such as bamboo flutes and the Chinese lute to accompany the performance.
Although far different from Western opera, "the strange thing is that English audiences can actually see and enjoy Kunqu Opera," Macfarlane told the Global Times, adding that Kunqu Opera is very beautiful and not too difficult for Westerners to understand.
Some audiences that night said they really enjoyed the performance and were looking forward to coming back again if there is another performance.
Macfarlane was intrigued that love was such a prominent feature of the opera.
"Romantic love that I thought was mainly a Western idea was very strong in traditional China," Macfarlane added.
John Elsom, honorary president of the International Association of Theater Critics, said he feels that The Peony Pavilion is the Chinese version of Romeo and Juliet. Elsom was impressed with Tang's drama, in which the single narrative is split out into many different stories, that each get their own emphasis.
Xu pointed out that compared with the works of Shakespeare, while people die for love in Shakespeare's drama, in Tang's drama people come back to life for love.
Keep tradition alive
The Cambridge Rivers Project is working with the Museum of Archeology and Anthropology and several organizations in Jiangsu Province to jointly develop the first bilingual digital Kunqu Opera museum.
The museum will allow people around the world to access a comprehensive collection of digital images that includes objects and papers about Kunqu Opera that are collected in museums, libraries and archives in both China and the UK.
Xu was excited about the joint effort, "The world will soon be grouped into those who have seen Kunqu Opera and those who haven't seen it yet, instead of those who speak Chinese and those who don't."
Cai said that the project is the perfect opportunity to promote Kunqu Opera with an organization that has vast resources such as Cambridge University.
"This will encourage more people to get involved in theater and learn about Chinese culture," Cai said.
King's College's connection to Kunqu Opera goes beyond the digital.
The Museum of Archeology and Anthropology at Cambridge University has roughly 100 traditional Chinese musical instruments donated by distinguished Cambridge ethnomusicologist Laurence Ernest Rowland Picken (1909 -2007). Most of these musical instruments are still used in Kunqu Opera today.
Over the past summer, the Revd Dr Stephen Cherry, dean of King's College, took the King's College Choir on a trip to Jiangsu. Cherry said that they were impressed by Kunqu Opera's charm.
As a well-known type of Chinese Opera, Kunqu Opera is still going strong in China. However, Cai admitted that protecting traditional arts that are less famous as Kunqu Opera presents a huge challenge. Many schools of traditional Chinese opera are still having a hard time finding audiences, while some types of opera have even died out.
Macfarlane emphasized that the best way to keep these traditional arts alive is to educate young people so that they become interested in these arts and can help generate enthusiasm for them.
"If you have a troupe, you have to visit schools, universities and colleges, getting the young people involved, encouraging them to go to performances and even become performers," Macfarlane added.