Updated: 2012-01-06 07:46
By Su Zhou (China Daily)
Bai Xianyong, 74, devotes himself to Kunqu, China's oldest opera. [Shang Huage / For China Daily]
Chinese writer's passion fuels revival of the country's oldest opera form
Bai Xianyong's love affair began when he was 9. It was 1946, and he went to see the Kunqu opera Peony Pavilion. The enthralled youngster watched Mei Lanfang play an aristocratic lady called Du Liniang who, in a dream, falls in love with Liu Mengmei, a scholar.
It was Mei's first appearance on the stage after World War II. More than six decades later, Bai is a retired literature teacher, and his appreciation for Mei's performance and his affection for the beautiful tale show no sign of waning.
While Mei was considered the most famous Peking Opera artist in China, he was also good at Kunqu opera. In 1930, Mei and his team visited the United States and dazzled audiences.
As an amateur of the art then, Bai never thought he would one day introduce Peony Pavilion to the rest of the world.
Bai, who taught at the University of California, found himself promoting the play for almost eight years after he adapted the masterpiece of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) master playwright Tang Xianzu (1550-1616) in 2004.
The new Peony Pavilion edition is called the youth edition because the performers are younger and it is targeted at youngsters with an abridged three episodes in nine hours. First staged in Taiwan, the youth edition has toured the mainland, Hong Kong, the US, Britain, Greece and Singapore.
Bai says the 200th youth edition was staged at the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing from Dec 8 to 12, which may be the last performance of this team. "After this, I will take a rest and return to California, finishing the biography of my father first," Bai says, reminding us that he is a writer.
Bai was born into what was considered an "aristocratic class" in China. His father was the famous Kuomingtang general Bai Chongxi. Bai himself quit writing for many years for Kunqu.
In 2006 his team toured four cities in California for a month and Peony Pavilion was well received by audiences. Bai says when the team arrived in Santa Barbara, the city's mayor, Marty Blum, declared the week of Oct 3 to 8 in 2006 as the "week of Peony Pavilion of Santa Barbara". The streets were decked with bunting of performers' faces to welcome Bai and his team.
"All seats were occupied and audiences rose to greet us, crying 'Bravo!' after the performance," Bai says.
Many people say Bai is different when he talks about the opera.
"Mr Bai was always described as a 'melancholy pioneer'," says Wu Dan, a fan of Bai's work in Jiangsu province. "Before he devoted himself to Kunqu, he seldom appeared in the media and didn't express himself that much."
But that changed after 2004. Every time he appeared in the media, Bai looked very happy and spoke more about his outlook on life. To prepare for the youth edition of Peony Pavilion, Bai traveled around California, Suzhou, Taiwan and Hong Kong, negotiating with different people, raising funds for performances, inviting famous Kunqu experts to train his team, and even teaching potential audiences in China's universities.
"I am a 'preacher' now," Bai says. "But if it can help people realize the beauty of Kunqu, I am willing to do so."
Kunqu is considered China's oldest opera and one of its most influential theatrical traditions, but it was once on the verge of extinction. In 2001 Kunqu ranked first on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's list of intangible cultural assets, and that helped reinforce Bai's conviction that the traditional Chinese art should be protected.
Bai thinks people will be interested in Kunqu again if they can see the most beautiful play.
"The younger generation of China, as well as Chinese compatriots abroad, lack the identity of traditional culture," Bai says. "In 1987 I was excited to see Kunqu still on stage in Shanghai after the 'cultural revolution' (1966-76). It is great to witness the rebirth of traditional culture on the mainland; more people should share my joy.
"Western countries are all familiar with Chinese martial arts and acrobatics. Now I want to show them the graceful art of China."
From the start, Bai set two goals for himself and his team: Peony Pavilion has to attract more young students to see Kunqu, and Kunqu needs to be promoted in foreign countries.
Traditional Kunqu opera tends to select more experienced and senior actors. But Bai chose young actors and radically adopted modern lighting and stage design.
Yu Jiulin and Shen Fengying, performing hero Liu Mengmei and heroine Du Liniang, respectively, were unknown performers.
"Yu is very handsome and scholarly; Shen has telling eyes," Bai says. "In such a beautiful dream, it is possible for young audiences to sit there for nine hours with such a beautiful love story."
To train the two youngsters, Bai invited two famous Kunqu performers Zhang Jiqing and Wang Shiyu, as art directors. During the intervals, Bai liked to explain a part or a scene of Peony Pavilion to them.
"I remember that before the initial performance, Mr Bai talked about his understanding of Peony Pavilion with us in the hotel," Yu says. "He talked about the permanent theme of human beings through hundreds of years: the pursuit of love, youth and life.
"Peony Pavilion is not only a love story but also a song for lost youth," Yu adds. "Mr Bai's elaboration helped us express the subtle feelings of the characters."
Bai's love of Kunqu is also seen in his perfectionism. During the rehearsal of the youth edition of Peony Pavilion, Bai kept adapting the scripts, the design of stage and the customs.
To display an exquisite show, Bai asked the flowers on customs to be all embroidered by hand, says Wang Tong, costume designer of the youth edition of Peony Pavilion. "It takes one day to embroider a single flower and the whole set of customs took us five months."
Many say the most important contribution of Bai to Peony Pavilion is raising funds for the tour. According to Cai Shaohua, director of Suzhou Kunqu Opera Theater, the youth edition of Peony Pavilion would not even exist without Bai. By March 2010, the team had spent nearly 20 million yuan ($3.1 million, 2.4 million euros). Many sponsors from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macao, and the US were moved by Bai's work and donated money.
But Bai knows he cannot bear the Kunqu burden on his own. The opera, of course, is more than just Peony Pavilion. "If entertainment companies can arrange the performance, things will change a lot; governments should protect Kunqu, at least make sure the performers can sustain their lives," Bai says.
"Kunqu is the best representative of soft power; governments should put more performances on stages in different countries.
"Companies can also participate in protecting cultural heritage - Coca-Cola funded 5 million yuan for the Kunqu heritage program at Peking University, and it is never too late to join in."
He jokes that when he taught the Kunqu of Peony Pavilion at Peking University, he had hoped that "Peking University will produce the future culture minister; I hope every one of you still remembers the beauty of Kunqu and will do something to protect it.
"What I have done is sow the seeds of Kunqu around the world. I believe at least one of these will germinate."