Kunqu and Peking Opera maestro Mei Lanfang (1894-1961) gave a famous performance at Shanghai's Majestic Theater in 1946. Among the audience of celebrities and officials were the Kuomintang general Bai Chongxi (Pai Chung-hsi) and his family, including 9-year-old son Kenneth Pai Hsien-yong. That night, Mei and artist Yu Zhenfei enacted a scene from The Peony Pavilion (牡丹亭) called The Interrupted Dream (游园惊梦). It was a memorable night.
"I think it was fate. I did not know what it was. I did not understand it. But it haunted me," says 72-year-old Kenneth Pai, in his hotel room near Peking University. When Pai recalls his first encounter with Kunqu Opera there is excitement in his big, expressive eyes, even though 63 years have passed.
It was the beginning of a love affair with old opera and especially The Peony Pavilion, which turned out to be an "interrupted dream" throughout his life.
Pai's childhood in Shanghai ended in 1949 when the Kuomintang Party was defeated and the family settled in Taiwan, where he studied English literature at Taipei University and became an author.
At university he came across the scripts of The Peony Pavilion by Tang Xianzu (1550-1616) and he returned to the story many times as a writer. Inspired by the opera, he wrote a short story titled The Interrupted Dream in 1966. In 1982, he adapted this into a stage play. A year later, he produced two acts of the original opera, The Interrupted Dream, in Taipei.
"But it was not until 1987 when I returned to the mainland for the first time in 38 years to see a Kunqu Opera in Shanghai that my passion for the opera was lit again," Pai says.
As a guest professor, he was invited to Shanghai Fudan University to give classes for three months. On the day before leaving, he got a ticket to see The Palace of Eternal Youth () performed by the Shanghai Kunqu Opera Company.
"I was overwhelmed," he says, "jumping and clapping even after the rest of the audience had left. In Taiwan I heard that Kunqu Opera was forbidden during the 'cultural revolution' (1966-76) and it was dying in the mainland. But that night, I saw a wonderful performance by the leading artists, Cai Zhengren and Hua Wenyi. I saw the art revived, with my own eyes."
After the show, Pai went backstage to meet the performers and they invited him to join the after-show dinner.
Then fate played another trick. When Pai arrived at the restaurant, at No 150 Fenyang Street, he found it was where his family had lived in Shanghai, before they left in 1949.
"How incredible! Life is a drama! All the memories of my boyhood in Shanghai flashed back and I felt it was indeed a 'dream interrupted'," he says, his eyes sparkling.
The actors told him how they had struggled to revive Kunqu Opera. Pai decided: "If they can do this, I must help them. If this art form could survive the 'cultural revolution', it must go on."
After returning to Taiwan, Pai resumed his dream of staging his own large-scale Kunqu Opera production. In 1992 he produced a three-hour show in Taipei, but felt it was "not that good".
"I want to do a more beautiful production, a production that caters for young audiences in the 21st century," says Pai, who says the opera is facing two main problems.
First, the maestros are aging and no longer fit enough to play the roles of young men and women in the various Kunqu Opera love stories; while the young actors just get a few supporting roles. The second main problem is that the audience comprises usually old people.
He also points out that Taiwan and the mainland have different problems. Taiwan has a wide audience base who appreciate Kunqu Opera, but less well-trained performers. The mainland, on the other hand, has the best performers but a shrinking audience and low income for the performers.
A breakthrough came in 2002, Pai was invited to give lectures about Kunqu Opera to middle school students in Hong Kong.
"It was the biggest challenge of my teaching career: How to attract some 1,500 teenagers who speak Cantonese and have probably never heard old opera to concentrate for two hours. I asked the organizer to get some performers to give a demonstration at my lecture," says Pai.
Yu Jiulin, in his early 20s, from Suzhou Kunqu Opera Company, performed a scene from The Peony Pavilion and convinced Pai he was the perfect Liu Mengmei, the leading male role in the play.
"Everybody in the lecture hall watched his performance carefully. Nobody walked out, nobody used their cell phone and nobody talked during the demonstration. I thought since these kids speak Cantonese and can appreciate it, why not those in Jiangsu, Shanghai or Beijing?"
Soon after, Pai went to Suzhou Kunqu Opera Company where he discovered Shen Fengying, "a young girl with charming eyes that bespoke shyness, tenderness and love". In Pai's eyes, she was the perfect Du Liniang, a leading female role in The Peony Pavilion.
Then Pai collaborated with Suzhou Kunqu Opera Company, getting two Kunqu maestros Wang Shiyu and Zhang Jiqing to work with Yu and Shen to create what he calls the "Young Lovers' Edition" of The Peony Pavilion, a lightly modernized production.
Since its premiere in 2004, the nine-hour, three-night show has been performed over 180 times in the mainland, Taiwan, United States and Europe, to great acclaim. The main reason for this success is the blending of tradition with innovation, thus giving Kunqu Opera aesthetics a new direction.
"What challenges us most is how to combine tradition and modern aesthetics, how to revive the 600-year-old art on the 21st century stage," Pai says.
"My practice is to follow tradition. But it is not limited by tradition and has a correct modern interpretation. It is like you cannot add or change any stroke in a piece of ancient calligraphy, but you can mount it in a nice frame to hang on the wall in the right light. With Kunqu, we use modern lighting, costumes and settings but the acting, narrative and singing retains a traditional style."
Pai's second "Young Lovers' Edition" Kunqu Opera play The Jade Hairpin (玉簪记), also performed by Yu and Shen, premiered last night at Peking University Hall and again demonstrates his concept of modernized Kuqnu Opera.
To Pai, The Peony Pavilion is an epic love story while The Jade Hairpin is more exquisite and a typical play between the sheng (male role) and dan (female role).
Based on a well-known Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) story, The Jade Hairpin by Gao Lian (1527-1609) is a passionate love story between the young scholar Pan Bizheng and the Taoist priestess Chen Miaochang. It is one of the earliest romantic plays that deals with sexuality. The young lovers defy the conventions of puritanical Confucianism and religious abstinence to unite in secret.
Director Weng Guosheng from Zhejiang Kunqu Opera Company takes another big step toward simplicity and freedom in expression. The linear beauty of Chinese calligraphy occupies a central place on stage. Dong Yang-Tzi's calligraphy, and Hsi Sung's paintings create an "ink-wash" world on stage. The costumes designed by Wang Tong have an understated elegance. This production endeavors to raise the aesthetics of Kunqu Opera to an even higher level of poetic expression.
The Jade Hairpin is on tonight and The Peony Pavilion will run from Dec 18 to 20 at Peking University Hall. The performances are part of Kunqu Opera Culture Week, co-launched by Pai and Peking University. Aside from the performances, Pai is also giving lectures at Peking University, Peking Normal University, Tsinghua University and China Europe International Business School Beijing Campus.
The on-going Kunqu Opera Culture Week at Peking University kicks off a five-year project on Kunqu Opera, co-launched by Peking University, Suzhou Kunqu Opera Company, Kenneth Pai Hisen-Yong - and sponsored by Coca-Cola China.
In the next five years, Peking University will regularly hold international symposiums and seminars about Kunqu Opera; establish a digital database to record, collect and preserve Kunqu Opera performances; open classes on appreciating the opera; collaborate with opera schools to train young performers; and set up a foundation to finance student Kunqu Opera societies and communities. During the annual culture week, leading companies will perform new productions of classic repertoires and renowned artists will give lectures at campuses.