Chinese Kunqu Opera Wins Audiences' Hearts At Cambridge's King's College
Cambridge audienceenjoyed an oriental culture feast featuring classic Chinese opera The PeonyPavilion on Monday evening.
Performers fromthe Suzhou Kunqu Opera Theater of Jiangsu Province performed A Walk in theGarden and The Interruption of a Dream from The Peony Pavilion and FifteenStrings of Cash - The Killing of Mr. You at Cambridge's King's College. Theyalso showed and explained the Kunqu Opera make-up and performance in aworkshop, giving the audience a taste of Kunqu Opera charm.
Cai Shaohua, thetheater troupe's director, told the Global Times, "The commemoration ofthe 400th anniversary of the death of playwrights Tang Xianzu and Shakespearegives us a wonderful opportunity to showcase China's Kunqu Opera culture."
The PeonyPavilion, one of the most well-known works of famous Chinese playwright TangXianzu, is also a representative Kunqu Opera that takes love as its theme.
The CambridgeKunqu Opera night was part of the Kunqu Opera Theater's week-long performancein universities and theaters across the UK aimed at building a platform forcultural exchange.
"We aretrying to set out some proper links between King's College of CambridgeUniversity and Kunqu Opera Theater, making it an annual event," AlanMacfarlane, emeritus professor of anthropological science and a Life Fellow atKing's College, told the Global Times.
Opera for everyone
Cai said thingsfelt different compared to eight years' ago, when his troupe first performed inthe UK.
"This time weare not only performing. We have come to discuss the extensive aspects oftheater, academy and culture with the British audience, scholars andstudents," Cai said, adding that he finds dialogues with world-class universitiesinspiring.
Kunqu Opera iscalled "the mother of traditional Chinese Opera," as many other typesof traditional Chinese opera developed from it. One of the oldest stillsurviving forms of Chinese Opera, it originated and became popular in Kunshan,Jiangsu Province at the end of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) and the beginningof the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
Kunqu Opera waslisted in May 2001 among the "Masterpieces of the Oral and IntangibleHeritage of Humanity" by UNESCO.
Xu Yaoxin,director of the Jiangsu Provincial Department of Culture, said that Tang'sworks helped Kunqu Opera go global.
Tang's four majordramas, collectively known as the "Four Dreams of Linchuan" wereoriginally written for Yihuang operas in Tang's hometown of Linchuan, JiangxiProvince. While Yihuang Opera has been lost to history, Kunqu Opera performers400 years ago found Tang's dramas a perfect fit for Kunqu Opera. Theiradaptations of his works were an instant success and began to spread all overthe country, Xu explained.
Kunqu Opera isvery lyrical, the singing is melodious and moving, the movements are exquisite,soft and graceful, and the singing and dancing are combined in an ingenious andharmonious way. The musicians use traditional Chinese instruments such asbamboo flutes and the Chinese lute to accompany the performance.
Although fardifferent from Western opera, "the strange thing is that English audiencescan actually see and enjoy Kunqu Opera," Macfarlane told the Global Times,adding that Kunqu Opera is very beautiful and not too difficult for Westernersto understand.
Some audiencesthat night said they really enjoyed the performance and were looking forward tocoming back again if there is another performance.
Macfarlane wasintrigued that love was such a prominent feature of the opera.
"Romanticlove that I thought was mainly a Western idea was very strong in traditionalChina," Macfarlane added.
John Elsom,honorary president of the International Association of Theater Critics, said hefeels that The Peony Pavilion is the Chinese version of Romeo and Juliet. Elsomwas impressed with Tang's drama, in which the single narrative is split outinto many different stories, that each get their own emphasis.
Xu pointed outthat compared with the works of Shakespeare, while people die for love inShakespeare's drama, in Tang's drama people come back to life for love.
Keep tradition alive
The CambridgeRivers Project is working with the Museum of Archeology and Anthropology andseveral organizations in Jiangsu Province to jointly develop the firstbilingual digital Kunqu Opera museum.
The museum willallow people around the world to access a comprehensive collection of digitalimages that includes objects and papers about Kunqu Opera that are collected inmuseums, libraries and archives in both China and the UK.
Xu was excitedabout the joint effort, "The world will soon be grouped into those whohave seen Kunqu Opera and those who haven't seen it yet, instead of those whospeak Chinese and those who don't."
Cai said that theproject is the perfect opportunity to promote Kunqu Opera with an organizationthat has vast resources such as Cambridge University.
"This willencourage more people to get involved in theater and learn about Chineseculture," Cai said.
King's College'sconnection to Kunqu Opera goes beyond the digital.
The Museum ofArcheology and Anthropology at Cambridge University has roughly 100 traditionalChinese musical instruments donated by distinguished Cambridge ethnomusicologistLaurence Ernest Rowland Picken (1909 -2007). Most of these musical instrumentsare still used in Kunqu Opera today.
Over the pastsummer, the Revd Dr Stephen Cherry, dean of King's College, took the King'sCollege Choir on a trip to Jiangsu. Cherry said that they were impressed byKunqu Opera's charm.
As a well-knowntype of Chinese Opera, Kunqu Opera is still going strong in China. However, Caiadmitted that protecting traditional arts that are less famous as Kunqu Operapresents a huge challenge. Many schools of traditional Chinese opera are stillhaving a hard time finding audiences, while some types of opera have even diedout.
Macfarlaneemphasized that the best way to keep these traditional arts alive is to educateyoung people so that they become interested in these arts and can help generateenthusiasm for them.
"If you have a troupe, you have to visitschools, universities and colleges, getting the young people involved,encouraging them to go to performances and even become performers," Macfarlaneadded.