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An Aesthetic Appreciation of Kunqu Opera

Words / Grace Chen (by interview)Translate / Wei Shimin

photo on top provided by Jiangsu Province Kunqu Theatre

For this year’s Chinese Theatre Festival’s presentation of 1 Table 2 Chairs Experimental Series, The Theatre Practice will once again collaborate with Jiangsu Province Kunqu Opera Troupe. Two of the troupe’s fourth-generation young actors, Zhao Yutao and Zhu Hong, who are trained in traditional Kunqu opera, will take on a modern interpretation of modern theatre’s blackbox experimental works. The director of Jiangsu Province Kunqu Opera Troupe, Plum Blossom prize-winner Li Hongliang, has also followed to visit Singapore for the first time, and he would introduce the essence of traditional Southern Kunqu opera[1] to audiences. The Practice Journal takes the opportunity to conduct an exclusive interview beforehand, and invites Li Hongliang to share his thoughts on what it is like to introduce Kunqu in a multicultural English-speaking country like Singapore, and his views on having a collaboration between traditional Kunqu and modern theatre.

Upon his first visit to Singapore, Li Hongliang is confident on raising awareness about Kunqu opera. He says, “It is by no easy feat that Kunqu opera has been recognised by the UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage! Kunqu has historical significance and a rich performing essence, blending song, recitation, movement, acting, martial arts, dance and acrobatics. No matter what race or culture you belong to, you would still understand the performance.” He points out that the widespread recognition of Kunqu stems from its unique artistic charm, and since Singapore welcomes all kinds of cultures, this provides the opportunity for all types of artistic styles to be nurtured in this country. In addition to the collaboration in 1 Table 2 Chairs, Li Hongliang would also present three verses of traditional Kunqu opera in his sharing session, as he hopes to let Singaporeans experience the power of Kunqu in an intimate setting.

Kunqu Opera In Modern Times

What challenges are faced in inheriting and developing the 600-year old art of Kunqu opera? Li Hongliang frankly admits that the script itself poses a big problem: “Be it artistic cultivation or writing ability, modern playwrights cannot match that of writers from the past.” He explains that the period from mid-Ming Dynasty to mid-Qing Dynasty was the peak of China’s literary “legends”[2], and all notable works such as Four Dreams of Linchuan and South Hong North Kong were all Kunqu pieces. For the many outstanding writers who had failed the imperial examinations, they would then channel their frustrations into furiously churning out lengthy scripts. The cultivation of both culture and creative ability in such a manner is not something that can be replicated by modern writers. Hence, he feels that modern playwrights are entrusted with a most heavy responsibility – not to pen classic scripts, but to create concise versions of notable works, so as to complement the modern taste and sense of aesthetics. That is, to condense the lengthy and lyrical storytelling into its very essence, and present these brilliant highlights to audiences.

Besides this, Li Hongliang is also certain that Kunqu opera actors nowadays put in a lot of effort to try out all kinds of performing and theatrical techniques. He lists the example of how Jiangsu Province Kunqu Opera Troupe recently took part in the experimental Kunqu “Toki Project” – through the interaction between modern theatre, Japan’s Noh theatre, puppetry and other forms, they discovered the commonalities across the performing arts from different countries and people. From there, they started to break down and re-organise all types of sounds, movement, rhythms, as they searched for ever more artistic possibilities. He emphasises that Kunqu is an all-rounded performance that integrates literature, aesthetics, music, etc, and it embodies an immense capacity to embrace other forms as well. A cross-boundary collaboration would not mean that the art of Kunqu is neglected, nor would it be for marketing purposes to suit audiences. Rather, it is about developing the performer’s spirit to explore, ignite creativity, and reflect upon the traditional art of Kunqu. “The most avant-garde is actually the most traditional,” says Li Hongliang.

Future Development Of Kunqu Opera

Kunqu opera originated as a leisurely pastime of the literati. It later became fashionable in the late-Ming to early-Qing Dynasty era, and the songs could be heard in every household. This persisted until the “War of the Operas”[3] during the reign of Emperor Qianlong in the Qing Dynasty, where in the midst of the Emperor’s birthday celebrations, Kunqu faltered under the intense competition from various opera styles. Remaining under the radar for about 160 years, it finally gained recognition again with the notable work, 15 Strings of Coppers. Having gone through ups and downs over the years, with its 600 years of preservation, Kunqu now steps into the 21st century. What would be its response to the fast-paced and liberal society of today? Li Hongliang has some thoughts on this.

“Honestly speaking, I don’t think that the peak of the end-Ming to early-Qing Dynasty would surface again, as we now live in a global and multi-cultural society, where people have plenty of choices.” However, he feels that Kunqu opera would not become a niche art either, as modern people have higher levels of education and cultural abilities, and are naturally open to elegant art forms. “Actually, our so-called progress is simply a conceptualisation, aesthetics is also a conceptualisation, and the most important thing to do now is to raise awareness of Kunqu, and develop it in tune with modern times.”

“Patiently spend 90 minutes with us, and you will enjoy a most beautiful experience of Kunqu opera.” Hearing the firm and confident tone in Li Hongliang’s speech, I believe that be it the classics of Kunqu, or the experimental 1 Table 2 Chairs, the performances would inject a refreshing energy into Singapore theatre, and provide a different type of experience to audiences.

[1]Southern Kunqu is a certain style of Kunqu, and can be contrasted with Northern Kunqu style.

[2]Legends: Traditional opera in China, a certain system of theatre literature from Ming and Qing Dynasties.

[3]War of the Operas: In the history of opera in China, this is the competition between Hua and Ya in mid-Qing Dynasty. The consensus is that Ya refers to the Kunqu style. The Hua refers to all the other opera styles.


arrow  Continue reading on Issue 7 / July 2015:From Finite To Infinity