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Kunqu Opera, The Peony Pavilion : Suchow Kunqu Opera Company/ Orchestra conducted by Zhou Youliang Sadler’s Wells, London  3, 4 and 5.6.2008 (AO)

Cast :
Du Liniang : Shen Fengying
Liu Mengmei : Yu Jiulin
Spring Fragrance : Lü jia, Zhou Xiaoyue
Sister Stone : Tao Hongzhen
Chen Ziuliang : Shen Zhiming
Du Bao : Qu binbin
Madame Du : Chen Lingling
Judge Hu in hell : Tang Rong
Li Quan : Tang Rong
Duchess Yangf : Lü Jia

General Producer/Artistic Director : Kenneth Pai Hsienyung


The Battle


Kunqu Opera emerged as a distinct form six hundred years ago, at the beginning of the Ming Dynasty but it builds on centuries of art long before that. For many, kunqu epitomises the ultimate in artistic refinement because it unites so many sophisticated genres, such as literature, history, music, dance, ethics. To understand Chinese aesthetics, study kunqu.

London was truly fortunate to receive this production of The Peony Pavilion, one of the great classics of the repertoire. The Peony Pavilion, or Moudan Ting in Chinese, is a story every Chinese knows, rather like most westerners know Romeo and Juliet.  It’s based on a novel written in 1598 by the great scholar Tang Xianzu,  a huge sprawling work in the style of classic Ming literature, full of references to poetry, history and philosophy.  The original opera lasts over 20 hours, with over 100 arias and other set pieces.  In the past, most educated people would have known the background well enough that they could pick up on the many connotations and allusions, gaining extended pleasure beyond what they saw and heard on stage. Nonetheless, Chinese opera is by no means elitist. Until fairly recently, most rural Chinese were illiterate, yet opera in some form was standard entertainment.  There are many regional variants of kunqu, though Beijing opera is different, so you don’t need to be a scholar to enjoy Chinese opera, because it operates on many levels. Kunqu has survived for centuries because its fundamental appeal is to the human spirit.  As these performances showed, there’s nothing to stop people having a good time with Chinese opera even if they know nothing of Chinese culture.

The Immortals


Most people nowadays won’t know the original novel and its background, and don’t have the stamina to sit through 20 hours of high flown art.  Thus Professor Pai Hsienyung created this new edition, lasting only 9 hours. It is faithful to the essence of the original but can also be enjoyed by modern audiences. Professor Pai, son of a much loved hero in 20th century China, has devoted his life to kunqu, so this edition is definitive.  Kunqu was eclipsed in the turbulent late 20th century by other kinds of Chinese opera, such as the brasher, more audience-friendly Beijing opera, which is very different. Professor Pai’s scholarship has contributed to the revival of kunqu in recent years and restored it to pre-eminence. In 2001, UNESCO declared kunqu a masterpiece of world cultural heritage.

Why does kunqu hold such fascination ?  It is surprisingly modern because it addresses universal human feelings. Tang Xianzu, the author of The Peony Pavilion, understood the significance of dreams and inner emotion long before Freud wrote his psychology. Tang wrote what are now called “The Four Dreams”, four novels which involve dreams and are an essential part of the kunqu canon. The Peony Pavilion centres on dreams. The heroine, Du Liniang is a talented but sheltered girl who enters a secret garden she’s forbidden to enter. It’s neglected and turning wild, but plants flourish in profusion.  You don’t need to know Freud to know what this means. In the pavilion in the garden, she falls asleep and dreams about a young man who gives her a branch of willow. So intense is this dream, that the real world loses meaning. Du Liniang resolves to die rather than live without love. But she has such faith that she paints her self-portrait and hides it in a rock. If fate wills, it will be found.

Du Liniang


Completely unknown to her, the man in her dreams is real, and he  too, has the very same dream. Indeed, it means so much to him that he adopts a new name, Liu Mengmei, which means “dream of willow and plum”. In tradition, name changes mark significant life events.  The young man comes from an ancient scholarly family that lost all their money. He was brought up by the family gardener. Yet the humble gardener understands dreams too, and insists his “Young Squire” sit the Imperial Examinations. It’s hard to stress just how important these examinations were in that society, but to understand the opera it does help to know what they meant. These examinations guaranteed success and status. Men would spend years trying, and many committed suicide if they failed.  So Liu ventures off but is caught up in a cataclysmic storm, and finds shelter in a deserted mansion. He, too, ventures into the wild garden and finds Du Liniang’s portrait.  She is the girl in his dreams.

When Du Linaing died, she entered the netherworld. But the Judge of Hell was moved by the story of her dream. If it was her fate to marry the man, she should stay in limbo until she finds him. So Du returns to her old home as a ghost and meets Liu Mengmei.  Then they have to restore her body, which is intact.  Helped by Stone Sister, a Daoist abbess, Liu digs up the grave and Du Liniang is resurrected.  Love triumphs over the laws of life and death.  If love can defeat the laws of hell, what chance then for the laws of the world ?

Liu Mengmei


Tang Xianzu, the author, knows that the ways of the world don’t allow for dreams and something as bizarre as resurrection from the dead.  Du Liniang’s tutor, Chen Zuiliang, is a venal fool who failed his Imperial examinations and ended up tutoring a young girl who was a better scholar than he was. Chen sets off to see Du Liniang’s father, Du Bao, who is the leader of Imperial armies fighting a barbarian invasion. (Another “Freudian” clue).  The rebels are led by Li Quan, but the real brains behind him is his vivacious wife, Duchess Yang.  She’s quite a character, who used to be a pirate before doing a deal with the barbarians and becoming ennobled. When Du Bao bribes her to lift the siege on the city, she cheerfully goes back to her wild old ways as a pirate, outside society. So much for officialdom and public status!

The social observation in The Peony Pavilion is so trenchant that it’s still valid today. Yet an undercurrent of irreverence flows throughout the opera, which tells us a lot more about Chinese values than superficial clichés would have us assume.  Of course the conventions of Confucian order hold society together but the human spirit is irrepressible. Du Linang’s maid, Spring Fragrance, is a cheeky minx who doesn’t let her lowly status get in the way of having fun.  Sister Stone, the abbess who helps Liu Mengmei resurrect his lover, leaves her husband on their wedding night to become a nun. She doesn’t do “that yin yang business”. Fate can suddenly reverse things from one extreme to another and the only security lies in virtue. Liu Mengmei won First Place in the Imperial Examinations, but didn’t know because he’s gone to do filial duty to Du Liniang’s father, who, understandably, didn’t believe the story of his daughter’s resurrection.  So Liu is tortured for being a grave robber.  But because Liu had treated his gardener well, the old man travelled through the war zone to find him, and was able to identify him as the First Place Scholar the Emperor was searching for. Chen Zuiliang, the incompetent tutor, wins honour without virtue, because his claims to have defeated the rebels were dishonest. Yet, if he hadn’t been such a fool, Du Liniang wouldn’t have been so bored that she ventured into the garden place and found the peony pavilion. Liu Mengmei wins over the Emperor because he’s patently a virtuous person.

Duchess Yang


Kunqu opera also illustrates other principles of Chinese art. In Chinese painting, for example, blank spaces are an essential part of the composition.  Similarly, Chinese gardens are designed to represent miniature vistas from landscape.  A kunqu stage isn’t cluttered with scenery.  A group of soldiers stand in formation, some with oars, which they move in swift unison, while the orchestra builds up fast rhythmic crescendi.  The combination of music and movement creates an image of huge armies descending down river.  The sedan chair in which the elderly gardener is carried is “formed” instantly when the Imperial Guards lower their banners to make two planks. The gardener sits on one, his feet resting on the other.  His expression and joyful singing show how thrilled he is at being so honoured.  You don’t need to see the details, you can hear them.

The spirits of nature and of the garden are conveyed by actors dressed in silk, ornately embroidered with flowers. They fill the stage, their sleeves fluttering and swaying.  Flowers move in the breeze, and fragrance is invisible. How beautifully these dancers convey the sensual lushness of a real garden ! No painted backdrop can compare.  Even the splendour of the Emperor’s chamber is suggested not by artefacts but by the costumes and demeanour of his entourage.  This timeless, elegant simplicity is effective because it concentrates attention on the singing and music.  There are parallels with Greek tragedy and early European theatre. The assumption that opera “has” somehow to be literal is very recent indeed and by no means the norm. Kunqu shows just how effective minimalism can be. Significantly, Chinese opera was fashionable in the west in the 1920’s and 30’s when European theatre was undergoing a transformation.  Bertholt Brecht, for example, was said to admire Mel Lanfang, perhaps the most famous Chinese opera star in modern times.

Expression in kunqu opera always derives from the human form, not from mechanical devices like scenery.  There are hundreds of different gestures, creating a whole extra language for communication. Finger movements are exquisitely subtle. It makes a difference how they are arranged and how they move. Similarly, when an actor holds his foot in a certain angle, it can indicate setting out on a long journey, or an arduous climb.  Audiences learn to “read” these clues quite easily, just as ballet audiences quickly pick up on the stylised gestures in dance. I was surprised that there weren’t more dancers in the audience in London, given that it was Sadler’s Wells.  Dancers would have been able to pick up the logic, and learned a lot.

Every gesture serves a purpose. Movement is extremely fluid and graceful, so when the actors do stop and hold a pose, it’s significant. One unique feature of Chinese opera is shui xiu, or “water sleeves”, where the very clothes people wear become an extension of meaning. For example, quietly flipping the sleeve ends over indicates alertness. Letting the sleeves flutter horizontally creates the impression of sustained, movement over space. There’s a whole vocabulary of gesture, but the skill comes from how an individual actor uses them in combination.  The scene in which the young scholar ventures out into the world and is tossed by a storm was remarkably vivid because Yu Jiulin, who played the role, managed to “act with his sleeves”, so they seemed at once part of him and yet part of the wind and the rain beating on him. It was a tour de force, though only one of many in this fine production.  This demonstrates one of the reasons why Chinese opera endures so well.  Within the stylisation, there’s room for spontaneity and personal freedom.

Chinese music isn’t fixed into notation like western music. Again, it uses a language of gestures like the actors do, varying and adapting to the action on stage. It’s closer to improvisation, because the aim is perfect coordination between action and sound.  When the percussion beats a steady sequence gradually increasing in speed, it can indicate something is about to happen before it does.  Chinese opera orchestras are like giant chamber ensembles, interacting with the singers and actors as well as with each other.  There were fewer than twenty musicians in the pit yet their range was huge. Sometimes all you would hear was a single, plaintive ocarina, as silent and as poignant as a distant bird. At other times, the orchestra could create the tumult of a battle scene, trumpets blaring, percussion evoking thundering hooves.  Chinese music proves that atonal and dissonant music is perfectly natural, and capable of expressing profound emotion.  Western musicians can learn a lot from these very different approaches to rhythm, tempi and interval.  Just as people interested in contemporary western music are often attuned to early western music, they might interesting ideas in Chinese music.

The first production of Professor Pai’s Peony Pavilion in China in 1998 received ecstatic reviews. I missed it by days, and was frustrated, especially when my friend, who loves both western and Chinese opera, told me how much she’d enjoyed it.  Later I got the DVD set, bound like a presentation book in pink silk, and saw what she meant !  The DVDs are being reissued in more commercial format, so look out for them.  The cast we heard in London is the same illustrious cast that did the premiere.  The Suchow Kunqu Opera Company is in a special position because Suchow was one of the centres of kunqu tradition. It’s also one of the most beautiful cities in China, famed for its gardens, some of which are over 1000 years old. It was a place that attracted scholars, poets and artists, so standards where extremely high.  But you don’t have to be a scholar or an artist to appreciate kunqu. So what if the sounds may seem alien and the conventions different ?  By now most people have been exposed enough to cultures other than their own that they can accept other cultures on their own terms.  Fundamentally, kunqu opera is universal because it appeals on a direct human, emotional level, accessible to anyone who opens their heart.

Anne Ozorio

All pictures  © Sadler's Wells

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