An old opera tradition, struggling to survive, finds new fans in young university students. Shi Xi reports
On the last day of the week-long Kunqu Opera summer camp at Peking University, Yang Nannan could not believe she would actually be playing Du Liniang, the leading role in the classic Kunqu Opera Peony Pavilion.
The 22-year-old master's student of law has been learning from several famous Kunqu performers for the past three months and, along with nine fellow students, won much acclaim for their debut at the Peking University Hall recently.
One of the oldest folk operas in the country that originated some 600 years ago, Kunqu was a favorite of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) rulers and gave birth to other folk operas like the more well-known Peking Opera. Although Kunqu has struggled to survive amid other modern forms of entertainment, it has seen growing interest among youngsters in the past decade.
Yang's entry into the Kunqu community in university did not happen as soon as she arrived in Beijing from Henan province in 2005. In fact, her first exposure to traditional opera was to the Shaoxing Opera melodies that her mother sang as she took her around on her bicycle.
Emerging in the early part of the 20th century in Shanghai, Shaoxing Opera combines elements of Kunqu and other folk operas. Popular in the countryside, a common feature of Shaoxing Opera is gifted scholars and pretty women.
While in her second year in university, Yang saw the Suzhou Kunqu Opera Theater of Jiangsu province performing Peony Pavilion on campus. She was instantly captivated.
"I remember telling my friends then that I was defecting to Kunqu Opera," Yang says smiling.
But like other young amateurs, she found few avenues to learn Kunqu. She relied mostly on the Internet, or listened to audio tapes, occasionally catching a live performance when she could afford it.
Yang and her friends would always take binoculars as the only seats they could afford were the ones in the last row. In some of the bigger venues, they could scarcely catch the facial expressions of the artists.
Luckily for Yang, this year the Institute for Cultural Industries of Peking University invited professional Kunqu Opera performers to teach students.
With a thumping heart, Yang sang an aria for the audition. She soon got a call informing her that she had been accepted into the summer camp, along with 80 others.
Xiao Huaide of the university's Institute for Cultural Industries, says that the Suzhou Kunqu Opera Theater staged Peony Pavilion on campus in 2005, 2006 and 2009, attracting hundreds of enthusiastic students. The university now has three Kunqu Opera communities, one of which has a lively forum that allows for a quick exchange of information on performances and resources.
"Although we have very zealous students, our teaching resources are limited," Xiao says, adding that Kunqu communities in Beijing Normal University and Communication University of China have been lucky to invite professionals to teach their students.
Xiao says 200 students applied when they announced that eight professional performers would come to the summer camp.
Yu Jiulin, an actor with the Suzhou Kunqu Opera Theater, introduced students to the character, Liu Mengmei. In Peony Pavilion, which was written by Tang Xianzu in 1598, young scholar Liu chances upon a portrait of a fair maiden named Du Liniang, who had died three years earlier. Following Du's instructions that come to him in a dream, Liu opens Du's tomb and she miraculously comes back to life.
The play is one of the classics of Kunqu Opera and is a paean to free love. After coaching the students on the singing and dialogue, Yu and his colleagues showed the eager learners how to pose and move on stage.
"We tried to capture the feel of every sentence," Yu says. "But it takes years of hard work to touch the soul of Kunqu."
Yu, 32, has been learning Kunqu for 15 years, specializing in the role of xiaosheng, or young scholar. "It's great to see students like Kunqu Opera and it is my pleasure to pass on this traditional cultural gem," says the Jiangsu native.
The young Kunqu enthusiasts would spend every spare moment trying to perfect all the nuanced moves.
Yang says: "I have poor motor coordination. At first, I had to think about coordinating my moves. When I raised my left leg, I had to concentrate hard to know which hand I should wave."
But the hardest part, she says, was to convey the true feelings of Du Liniang. The script was full of elegant poetry describing Du wandering alone in the family garden, marveling at the brilliant blossoms, lamenting her tragic fate that she too would fade like a flower before anyone could appreciate her real charm.
"Du grew up as a well-bred lady in a low-ranking official's family. When awake, she is an introvert who conforms strictly to the norms of feudal society; it is only in her dream that she is unfettered and seeks spiritual love," Yang says.
She says she found walking gently and avoiding eye contact while talking, to be most challenging.
Hu Wenxiu, a doctoral student of law who participated in the summer camp with Yang, found the experience directly beneficial to her academic research.
"The hands-on experience helped me to better appreciate Kunqu Opera. It also provided a different angle to my doctoral dissertation," says Hu, who is studying the differences between Chinese and Japanese culture from the make-up used in traditional opera.
After three months of preparations, Yang, Hu and eight other camp participants staged three episodes of the Peony Pavilion to thunderous applause.
"I will definitely keep on studying Kunqu," Yang says.