Classic love tale is young at heart
The Peony Pavilion, a Kunqu Opera production, remains a romantic favorite for a new generation, Chen Nan reports.
In 2003, the Suzhou Kunqu Opera Theater of Jiangsu worked with Chinese-American writer Kenneth Hsienyung Pai to produce the "youth version" of a Kunqu Opera production, The Peony Pavilion. After its premiere in Taiwan in 2004, his version of The Peony Pavilion has clocked in about 400 performances across the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong and Macao, as well as in countries such as Greece, Singapore, the United Kingdom and the United States. It has been performed in front of a combined worldwide audience of about 800,000.
With a new cast, stage set, costumes and music, the production has become so popular that Pai's name has become synonymous with The Peony Pavilion. Thanks to the shows staged at universities across the country at that time, Kunqu Opera has witnessed a surge of popularity, especially among younger people.
Yu Jiulin and Shen Fengying, who play hero Liu Mengmei and heroine Du Liniang, respectively, were unknown performers then, but have since both established a large and devoted fan base among Kunqu Opera lovers.
On Saturday, Yu and Shen will perform the "youth version" of The Peony Pavilion－at Tianqiao Performing Arts Center in Beijing, as part of the ongoing 22nd Meet in Beijing International Arts Festival. This time, they'll perform a two-hour-long version of the opera.
"I can still recall vividly the first time we performed it," says Yu. "I was a young actor and it was the first time that I performed a complete version of The Peony Pavilion. The feedback from the audience was very warm and they gave us waves and waves of applause."
Yu, who joined the Suzhou Kunqu Opera Theater of Jiangsu in 1998, was trained by veteran Kunqu Opera master Wang Shiyu. Yu has been the recipient of numerous national awards, including the top award for the sector, the China Theater Plum Blossom Award, and is currently the vice-president of the Suzhou Kunqu Opera Theater of Jiangsu.
The "youth version" of The Peony Pavilion has become a popular part of the theater's repertoire, according to Yu. "For me and Shen, it means a lot to us personally, since we've been performing it for nearly 20 years. It's an important play for us," he says.
The Peony Pavilion is a classic Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) play by eminent playwright Tang Xianzu. It originally consisted of 55 scenes that would be performed over several days. The story recounts how Du Liniang falls asleep after she visits the beautiful peony pavilion of her home and dreams of Liu Mengmei, a young scholar she has never met. She wakes in despair and asks the Flower Goddess to find her love. Unable to find him, Du dies of a broken heart. Liu turns out to be a real person, who discovers a portrait of Du and falls in love with her. He finally meets his love after Du returns to life again.
Pai once described the actor Yu as "handsome and scholarly" and the actress Shen "having a pair of telling eyes".
In the "youth version", the 55 scenes have been rearranged into 27, combining classical Kunqu Opera traditions and modern art forms. The full "youth version" runs for three evenings, three hours each night.
"In such a beautiful dream, it is possible for a young audience to sit there for nine hours with such a beautiful love story," Pai said.
The 2004 version of The Peony Pavilion has been called the youth edition because the performers were younger and it targeted younger audiences, according to Shen.
"Everything was new onstage, especially the music, which involved more instruments," recalls Shen, who, like Yu, joined the theater in 1998 and won a China Theater Plum Blossom Award. She was trained by the late Kunqu Opera master Zhang Jiqing who died on Jan 6 at the age of 83.
"The story of The Peony Pavilion explores a permanent theme in people's lives: the pursuit of love, which is timeless," says Shen. "I am glad that many people have seen and enjoyed the beauty of Kunqu Opera by watching us perform the 'youth version' of The Peony Pavilion."
Shen Fengying (left) and Yu Jiulin from Suzhou Kunqu Opera Theater of Jiangsu will play heroine Du Liniang and hero Liu Mengmei in the "youth version" of The Peony Pavilion at Tianqiao Performing Arts Center in Beijing on Saturday. CHINA DAILY
"We are not as young as we were in 2004 but we have gained more experience as Kunqu Opera performers, which allows us to better express the subtle feelings of the characters," she adds.
With a history of about 600 years, Kunqu Opera is considered China's oldest opera form and one of its most influential theatrical traditions. Like many traditional art forms, it was once on the verge of extinction. In 2001, Kunqu Opera was listed as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, which helped the ancient art form to receive more protection and survive.
In January 2021, Yu and Shen performed the full "youth version" of The Peony Pavilion in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, to a sold-out theater.
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