Director Stanley Kwan examines a lesbian relationship in his latest work that will be presented as a Kunqu Opera. Liu Wei reports
Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan directed Lan Yu, a bittersweet story of two men in love, nine years ago. It remains one of his best-loved works. Now the director, who is openly gay, is set to further push the limits by presenting the love story of two women, in the form of Kunqu Opera.
Titled Two Belles in Love, it is adapted from a script by Li Yu, the legendary playwright, novelist and opera producer of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
Li is known for taking on daring subjects. In Belles, the two beauties Cui Qianyun and Cao Yuhua, besotted with one other's beauty and talent, scheme to be together by marrying the same man.
Kwan came out as early as in 1996, and says being open about his sexual orientation has helped him "further explore the story's beauty".
He also found support in Kunqu master Wang Shiyu, 70, whose stage career spans more than 30 years. He was one of the most famous Kunqu actors of his time.
"My job is to ensure it is a genuine Kunqu opera, to present Kunqu as it is," he says.
Kwan admits that before embarking on this project he had limited exposure to Kunqu, a 600-year-old operatic tradition known for its stylized lyrics, sweet melody and elaborate costumes.
"My mother is a big fan of Kunqu; she loved to watch it when she was pregnant. Maybe that will help," Kwan says.
"The key to acting is to get under the skin the character, but in Kunqu, there are many strict rules that have to be adhered to. As a film director I want to learn from Wang to make sure everything is right."
Sociologist and sexologist Li Yinhe, who is also as an activist for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual/pansexual, and transgender) rights, will step in as cultural consultant.
"The show is a good opportunity to learn about the attitude ancient Chinese society had toward homosexuals," she says. "From this story it's clear they were treated with tolerance and understanding."
The show will have two casts, one all-male and the other all-female. Chinese operas have a long tradition of men playing female roles as women were forbidden from acting on stage.
The all-male cast, according to producer Wang Xiang, is aimed at presenting the artistic achievements of Chinese nan dan, the male actors who took on female roles.
Fashion designer Guo Pei, the couturier behind the Beijing Olympics awards ceremony, has been assigned to design the costumes. She will stage a show on April 26 displaying the more than 100 costumes that will be used in the opera.
"I would call the costumes 'revolutionary'," she says. "If the Kunqu producers and actors of ancient times had been alive today, they would have transformed the outfits."
Kunqu has seen a revival in recent years, especially among young audiences and social elites, largely thanks to the promotion by Taiwan writer Kenneth Pai, who launched the smash show Peony Pavilion across China and some Western cities.
Two Belles in Love will be staged in Beijing's Poly Theater from May 11 to 14, before a tour around Shanghai, Hangzhou, Nanjing, Wuhan and Chengdu.