Beijing is making me dizzy. I’ve spent the last three nights watching a nine-hour Chinese opera called The Peony Pavilion, and its combination of unearthly beauty, dream-like plot and siren-like singing are making my trip feel … trippy. I’m on scarcely more solid ground during the day. This newly globalised city, awaiting the start of the Olympics, seems to be almost palpably churning: all around it is being demolished, redesigned and rebuilt. The city seems to be sprinting towards its future. What place can a 400-year-old opera have in that?
The Peony Pavilion, which is being staged in London this week, is an opera on an epic scale. Written by the poet Tang Xianzu in 1598, it tells the story of a girl who makes love to a young scholar in a dream, beginning an erotic liaison that sees her die and be brought back to life. The opera is the best-known example of a style called kunqu, which originated in the southern region of Suzhou during the late Ming era (1368-1644). It was highbrow, aristocratic entertainment. Each production, played out over several evenings, was highly codified, with elaborate makeup, fabulously embroidered costumes and music that combined stylised speech-singing with arias that swooped between piercing falsetto and rumbling bass. Over the next three centuries, kunqu opera gave way to the more populist Peking opera, but it remained prized by the Chinese literati for its refined style – until the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, when kunqu was suppressed as a decadent, imperialist tradition.
I’ve been watching The Peony Pavilion at Beijing’s National Centre for Performing Arts, a futuristic glass and titanium dome. Later, I meet its producer, Kenneth Pai, there.
A dapper, mild-mannered man of 70, he recalls his first encounter with the opera at the age of nine. “I think it was fate,” he says. “The great actor Mei Lan-fang was performing in Shanghai. It was a big sensation and our family were lucky to get tickets. And on the night we went he happened to perform a scene from The Peony Pavilion called The Interrupted Dream.” Pai’s eyes widen until I can almost see the goggle-eyed kid he was then. “I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t understand it. But it haunted me.”
Soon after this, China’s history took a fateful turn: Pai went into exile, and kunqu opera went underground. His father was a minister in the nationalist Kuomintang party and settled in Taiwan after their defeat by the communists in 1949. It was there, studying literature at university, that Pai came across the poetry of Tang Xianzu once more.
As one of Taiwan’s foremost writers, Pai returned again and again to The Peony Pavilion. One of the stories in his most famous book, Taipei People (1971), was inspired by the opera. He then turned this into a stage play in 1982, and, a year later, co-produced two acts of the original opera in Taipei. The crucial moment came in 1987, when Pai returned to China for the first time in 39 years to see a kunqu opera company perform in Shanghai. “I was overwhelmed,” he remembers, “jumping and clapping even after other people had left.”
The actors told Pai how they had kept kunqu alive. “During the Cultural Revolution the performers were sent out all over China for labour reform,” Pai says. “They were not allowed to sing kunqu. It was strictly forbidden. But when they were out working in the fields, they told me they would sing to themselves quietly, just to remember the music, so that they could keep kunqu alive. That is how, after 10 years of this Cultural Revolution – cultural holocaust, I could even say – they could come back and work together again. And I thought, if they could do this, I must help them. If this art form has survived the Cultural Revolution, it must go on.”
Pai dreamed of staging his own large-scale kunqu opera production. A three-hour show in Taipei in 1992 served as a practice run, but by the opera’s 400th anniversary in 1998, his project still had not got off the ground. Meanwhile, others had completed theirs. The director Peter Sellars opened the 1998 Vienna festival with a “postmodern” Peony, mixing classical and contemporary music, stage scenery and video screens. Another production, by Chen Shi-Zheng for the Shanghai Kunqu Company, was due to open New York’s Lincoln Centre festival the same year, but was cancelled by the Chinese authorities, who deemed it feudalistic, superstitious and pornographic.
The Lincoln Centre mounted Chen’s production the following year, with mostly New York-based artists. It was an 18-hour marathon, complete with a pond and live ducks, including all the opera’s original 55 scenes, and marketed as the revival of a lost Ming tradition. “It was a very exciting production,” says Pai. “But it mixed a whole variety of styles – Peking opera, puppetry, folklore. It wasn’t kunqu.”
Meanwhile, the Shanghai Kunqu Company mounted its own lavish version, billed as an “uncut original”, although it included only 35 scenes. “That was kunqu style,” says Pai, “though the set was too much like a theatre stage – with real willow trees, for example – where the real aesthetic of kunqu is more abstract and lyrical.” Other critics were less diplomatic, describing it as gaudy and excessive.
Pai remained determined to stage a version that could look to China’s future, while staying true to its past. “But the masters were ageing. And the audience was ageing, too. I had to do something quick.” He began to focus on the new generation, getting two kunqu masters to work with a group of young actors in the Suzhou Opera Company and creating what he calls the “Young Lovers’ Edition” of the opera, with the music and staging both lightly modernised. “It was rigorous training,” he says. “I put them through hell!”
The production first toured Chinese universities, with tickets either cheap or free. For Pai, these young people were his real audience, rather than the officials with complimentary tickets at the National Centre for Performing Arts, who (and I can vouch for this) nattered on their mobiles throughout the performance.
“It was phenomenal,” says Pai. “Thousands of people turned out and sat through nine hours. Why? I have a feeling that this young generation are searching for their cultural identity. They open their eyes and see here a McDonald’s, there a Kentucky Fried Chicken. They are inundated with western influences, but globalisation makes them even more aware of being Chinese. The question is, how to be Chinese? They want to identify with their cultural traditions – but they can’t find them. So this opera is at once familiar and very fresh. They can see it comes from an old Chinese tradition, yet it’s also new for them.”