The Kunqu advocate

By Zhang Kun in Shanghai | China Daily | Updated: 2017-04-15 07:38

Thanks in part to Zhang Jun's persistence over the decades, Kunqu Opera, once labeled as a traditional performance that is too boring to watch, is now experiencing a revival in modern times

When he was a student at the folk opera school at Shanghai Culture Square, Zhang Jun often snuck out of classes to watch films at the New Shanghai Theater across street.

Twenty years later, the renowned Kunqu artist and founder of the Zhang Jun Kunqu Opera Art Center will host a contemporary Kunqu art week at the very same cinema that was recently reopened after undergoing refurbishment.

The historic 70-year-old New Shanghai Theater now features cutting-edge design fashioned by the award-winning architecture studio Neri & Hu and is managed by staff from the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center.

The Kunqu advocate

Clockwise from top: Zhang Jun's I, Hamlet includes Chinese views on life and death, as well as other aspects of Chinese philosophy; a scene from Blossoms on a Spring Moonlit Night; I, Hamlet is a contemporary Kunqu adaptation of William Shakespeare's great tragedy. Photos Provided to China Daily

It has also been hailed as a venue that will attract younger crowds to the traditional performance art of Kunqu Opera. Zhang said that the New Shanghai Theater is a "perfect" space for Kunqu Opera performances, as the cozy 300-seat theater allows artists to interact intimately with the audience.

The Future Contemporary Kunqu Art Week, which takeS place from April 6 to 16, consists of four gala Kunqu concerts performed by artists from several opera troupes from Beijing, Jiangsu and Hunan provinces, two lectures on the traditional art form, as well as five performances of I, Hamlet, a contemporary Kunqu adaptation of William Shakespeare's great tragedy, from April 12 to 16.

In the one-man show I, Hamlet, which is created by Zhang, the Danish prince from the original tale is replaced by a Chinese noble from an ancient dynasty. Last year, Zhang presented the play in London and New York, winning praise among overseas audiences.

While the Chinese adaptation arrived rather late at the Lincoln Center of New York last year where a series of celebratory events took place to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the birth of Shakespeare, American audiences still found the performance refreshing.

Zhang said that he was touched when an audience member approached him to say how I, Hamlet made him "see the story in a different light".

"In the story, we included Chinese views on life and death, as well as other aspects of Chinese philosophy. It was an interpretation from a different perspective, and a dialogue between two cultures," said Zhang.

While I, Hamlet represents the latest development of Kunqu Opera in the contemporary world, Zhang believes it is just as important not to lose sight of the traditional.

Refined aesthetics

In the past 10 years, Zhang has witnessed how an increasing number of people have become intrigued by traditional Chinese opera, fascinated by its refined aesthetics, slow movements and poetic lyrics. He attributed this phenomenon to cultural development and the current age we live in.

The Kunqu advocate

"People looked at us as if we were aliens. Nobody cared for what we did back then," said Zhang, recalling how he and other students from the opera school were stared at when they walked the streets in Shanghai with their distinctive clean-shaven heads.

In order to promote Kunqu to wider audiences, Zhang went to Shanghai's universities to seek opportunities to sing for students. On one occasion, an administrative official was so annoyed by Zhang's persistence that he replied: "How about I pay you not to put on the show?"

The official explained that it would be embarrassing if Zhang and his colleagues put on a show that nobody went to see. This incident, together with several other frustrating experiences, inspired Zhang to find different ways to show the public what Kunqu Opera is about.

"I began to do public education on Kunqu in 1998. I was but a Kunqu actor. All I could do was to play my part the best I could. But people were not interested. They complained that Kunqu Opera was boring and that they would fall asleep watching it," said Zhang.

In order to better appeal to audiences, Kunqu artists in China tried speeding up the rhythm and adding new instruments to the performances. None of these helped either.

After having performed Kunqu for 30 years, Zhang realizes that those attempts to change the art form were somewhat naive, because the style and aesthetics are the very core of Kunqu Opera.

Today, he has adopted a more relaxed attitude toward criticism. If ever faced with the same complaint that Kunqu is too boring to watch, Zhang's response would not be to change the art form, but to suggest a change in perspective.

"With urban life being so intense and full of anxiety, isn't it a beautiful experience if someone could catch a few minutes of sleep by listening to Kunqu?" said Zhang.

New production

In 2007, Zhang quit his job as the deputy director of the Shanghai Kunqu Opera Troupe because he was disappointed with the administration for not providing sufficient support and guidance.

Determined to explore a new way to achieve the sustainable development of Kunqu Opera, he founded Zhang Jun Kunqu Opera Art Center two years later.

The center's production of Peony Pavilion, considered the most beloved Kunqu repertoire, has since been performed 220 times in a vintage garden in Zhujiajiao, located in suburban Shanghai's Qingpu district.

Last year, Zhang's new contemporary production Blossoms on a Spring Moonlit Night won critical acclaim in Shanghai.

Liang Guyin, a Kunqu maestro in her 70s, said after the performance that she was delighted to discover that Zhang has achieved so much for the art form. She admitted that she was previously worried he might not make any progress after leaving the State-owned opera troupe.

Earlier in March, Blossoms on a Spring Moonlit Night was performed in Beijing. A review by Ying Ni of China News Service praised it for "showing Kunqu at its best in today's world". Two more performances were held in Shanghai at the Oriental Art Center on April 1 and 2. Tickets to these shows were sold out weeks ahead.

Nowadays, Zhang continues to champion the art form through talks and performances. In 2016, he was involved in 70 opera shows and 30 lectures. He said that he is now aiming to design a systematic educational program for Kunqu.

When he first began his talks about Kunqu, Zhang would rely heavily on illustrating the movements involved to engage the audience.

These days, he has switched the focus to the literary beauty of the opera, how the art form has evolved through the ages, the story behind each piece, as well as how the characters express their suppressed emotions through poetic words.

As a result, people have learned to appreciate the core aesthetics of Kunqu, said Zhang, who added that he is very heartened by this development.

Zhang revealed that he is currently working on a new production Chang Sheng Dian (Palace of Eternal Life), a classical Kunqu Opera from the 17th century. While the premiere of the performance has yet to be decided, Zhang is looking to present highlights of the performance on May 18.

About Kunqu

Kunqu Opera, which has a history of 600 years, is the oldest extant form of Chinese opera. The popularity of Peking Opera rose rapidly in the mid-1800s, gradually becoming the most established form of traditional Chinese theater and this in turn marginalized Kunqu for many years.

Kunqu, generally considered more refined than Peking Opera, has since 2001 been listed by UNESCO as a masterpiece of oral and intangible heritage of humanity.

There are seven major Kunqu Opera troupes in the Chinese mainland: Northern Kunqu Theater (Beijing), Shanghai Kunqu Opera Troupe, Suzhou Kunqu Opera Troupe, Jiangsu province Kunqu Opera Theater (Nanjing), Hunan Kunqu Opera Troupe (Chenzhou), Yongjia Kunqu Opera Troupe, and Zhejiang province Kunqu Opera Troupe.

(China Daily 04/15/2017 page14)

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