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    Is There a Right Way to Make Chinese Opera?

    With countless adaptations, “The Peony Pavilion” is China’s answer to “Swan Lake.” But recent attempts to return the show to its roots continue to miss the mark.
    Nov 20, 2023#arts

    As part of last month’s Shanghai International Arts Festival, the Shanghai Kunqu Opera Troupe presented a “distilled” version of the famous Ming dynasty (1368-1644) opera “The Peony Pavilion.”

    Originally penned by Tang Xianzu, one of the Ming’s greatest authors and dramatists, “Peony Pavilion” is to Kun opera what “Swan Lake” is to ballet. It tells the story of a noble woman, Du Liniang, who — in a bout of what the poets used to call “spring melancholy” — slips into a deep, dream-filled slumber. There she falls in love with a scholar named Liu Mengmei. Upon waking, Du is so distraught at the loss of her lover that she dies. Roaming the mortal realm as a spirit, she finds the real-life Liu and the two fall in love. Finally, he brings her back to life so that they can truly be together.

    That’s a very short summary of an exceedingly long story. Ming dynasty epics can have as many as 30 to 50 scenes, including numerous self-contained side plots that bear little relation to the primary narrative. On top of that, the format of Kun opera — a style of opera native to the Jiangnan region surrounding Shanghai and distinguished by both the use of local dialect and the heavy involvement of the literati in its creation and production — demands that several songs with similar melodies be strung together into sets. They are long by definition. To present Tang Xianzu’s work in its entirety, you’d be singing non-stop for about three days and three nights. Perhaps that’s why there’s only one record of an unabridged performance of “Peony Pavilion” having ever taken place: the Ming-era composer Pan Zhiheng described watching the Wu Yueshi Family Troupe perform an uncut version of the opera in the eastern city of Nanjing in the fall of 1609.

    Since 1949, Kunqu opera troupes have generally limited performances of “Peony Pavilion” to two or three hours. These abridgements allowed troupes to emphasize different themes depending on the era in which they were produced, such as opposition to feudalism or the pursuit of individual happiness. Even diehard fans of Kun opera have long since lost track of all the “Peony Pavilion” adaptations made over the years.

    Nevertheless, in the past 30 years a handful of troupes have attempted more “complete” performances of “Peony Pavilion” — even if they still technically involved some omissions. In 1998, the Shanghai Kunqu Opera Troupe staged a production of “Peony Pavilion” with 55 scenes that took three afternoons and evenings to perform. The following year, the same troupe staged a six-hour version of Tang’s opera, splitting it into three parts: Dream Interrupted, Revival, and Reunion.

    In 2004, renowned author Bai Xianyong helmed an adaptation of “Peony Pavilion” aimed at young audiences and performed by the Suzhou Kun Opera Troupe. That show features 29 scenes, takes over nine hours from start to finish, and is still staged today. Thanks to a series of free performances at colleges and universities across the country, it has been many students’ first exposure to the Kun opera genre.

    More recently, the Shanghai Kunqu Opera Troupe premiered a new adaptation last year, this one comprising 55 scenes spread out over eight hours.

    Why have these more-or-less “complete” versions of “Peony Pavilion” come back into vogue? Aside from the fact that the sheer scale of Ming dynasty epics can make them feel like an endurance event of sorts, it’s fair to ask whether their resurgence might also be a reaction against the 20th century’s Western-influenced pursuit of brevity.

    Curiously, however, with the exception of their length, the less-abridged productions of “Peony Pavilion” that have premiered in recent decades have otherwise largely adhered to Western conventions. In particular, they have been adapted to Western frame-like stages — a setting Tang and other Ming-era dramatists would have found foreign.

    Not everyone continues to adhere to these conventions. Recent years have seen a number of experimental productions attempt to bring Kun opera back to the venues in which it was originally performed: grand halls, residential courtyards, guilds, and gardens, including a 2007 version that premiered in one of the buildings of the Imperial Granary near Dongsi Shitiao station in Beijing — a small venue with a maximum capacity of 60.

    Located at the northernmost end of the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal, which connected Jiangnan to the capital for centuries, the granary’s extant buildings were constructed on foundations dating back to the Yuan (1271-1368) and early Ming dynasties. But the “Peony Pavilion” adaptation that premiered there was heavily abridged — the original dayslong show cut to eight scenes and a tight 100 minutes. It was also marketed toward what the show’s producers called “the capital’s business elite.” Of the show’s more than 200 first-year shows, over half were block-booked by financial institutions.

    Other entries in this genre of adaptations include a 2010 version that premiered at Shanghai’s Sanshan Guild, built as a gathering place for Fujianese fruit merchants in 1909; an outdoors adaptation from the same year designed around the tranquil Kezhiyuan Garden in Zhujiajiao, just outside Shanghai; and a more recent version staged in a small courtyard next to the former Nanjing residence of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) scholar Gan Xi, whose grandson, grandson’s wife, and great-grandchildren were noted students of Kun opera.

    All of these adaptations were abridged and aimed at wealthy audiences — itself a kind of return to the genre’s roots. Kun opera emerged in the mid- to late-16th century, when it was performed largely by family-based troupes — at least until such troupes were banned by the Emperor Yongzheng in 1724. These troupes were typically run by members of the elite, who would compose the operas, select and train their own actors, and host performances at their own residences, reception halls, or pavilions, either for their own entertainment or that of guests.

    So, on the one side, we have the revival of longer, largely unabridged performances of “Peony Pavilion” that seek to present the original in its entirety to as wide an audience as possible, even as they are altered to conform to Western-style stages and conventions. On the other, we have heavily truncated adaptations, organized or promoted by private companies and set in traditional Chinese venues as a way to appeal to the country’s wealthy modern elite.

    Perhaps stage directors can one day strike a balance between the two? A complete version of “Peony Pavilion,” performed in a garden or a reception hall and spread out over several days so that audience members could truly digest what they’ve seen and return when they’re ready for more, would allow fans of the genre to experience these legends as they were originally written. Until then, we’ll just have to imagine what Pan Zhiheng saw in Nanjing all those centuries ago.

    Translator: Lewis Wright; editor: Wu Haiyun.

    (Header image: A stage photo from Shanghai Kunqu Opera Troupe’s “The Peony Pavilion.” From @国家大剧院 on Weibo)