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Peach Blossom Fan
    2006-04-28 17:01:49

Last week, we told you about the general situation of traditional Chinese operas and the efforts of artists to revitalize these works. Moreover, in recent years, artists in the field of Kunqu opera have enjoyed particular success with their experiments at preservation. Indeed, just last month a new version of classic Kunqu piece The Peach Blossom Fan helped revive interest in this 600 year-old genre. Therefore, on today's "In The Spotlight", Wu Jia will reveal the beauty of this ancient, elegant but endangered opera.

The Peach Blossom Fan is a masterpiece and representative work of Kunqu opera, created some 300 years ago by Qing Dynasty playwright Kong Shangren, during the genre's prime. This opera tells of the tortuous love between famous young scholar Hou Fangyu and equally famous courtesan Li Xiangjun. Meanwhile, the backdrop to their love story is the replacement of the Ming Dynasty with the Manchu Qing Dynasty. You could therefore sum up The Peach Blossom Fan as a love tragedy set during a dynastic shift, with the separation and reunion of the lovers allowing the author to dwell on feelings associated with the rise and fall of a dynasty. Written in 1699, the story became hugely popular when it first went to stage.

Kunqu is one of the earliest forms of Chinese drama, with operatic melodies which originate from Kunshan in eastern Jiangsu Province. As a condensation of Chinese literature, song-and-dance, drama and acrobatics, we even refer to Kunqu as the ancestor of all Chinese opera. Melodies are sweet while arias are elegant, stressing rhythm and dialogue. Additionally, even a basic Kunqu play is very intricate, so that a program needs to detail not only the acts, verses, tunes and roles but also explain stage settings, costumes, props, performers' movements and even positions on stages. Such a specialized art-form will always face problems, and Kunqu opera has certainly declined over the years ĘC indeed, performance was only ever intended for privileged classes and members of the imperial court. Furthermore, in more recent times, the popularity of Kunqu has decreased even further, with its slow singing speed a jarring contrast to the fast tempo of modern life.

Having said all that, the new version of The Peach Blossom Fan has brought many potential Kunqu fans back to the opera house. Even more surprisingly, Fang Tong, a participant in the story's adaptation, says that the present version fully respects Kong Shangren's original script. In fact, as well as preserving the plot, this new version also uses the same roles and grandiose stage settings as were employed 300 years ago. That's a lot for an audience to absorb, while Fang Tong also points to the logistic difficulties of attempting such authenticity.

" It's not easy to revive the original style of opera from 300 years ago. For one thing, The Peach Blossom Fan was originally a 45-act opera which could last for four to five evenings on end. We have to condense it into one evening's show, and therefore had to cut some very beautiful lines, verses and arias in order to make it fit. Nevertheless, we have managed to maintain the original flavor of this work by Kong Shangren."

In addition to these original elements, artists have also incorporated some modern aesthetics into this Kunqu opera. The stage appears rather like a moving museum, where over a hundred beautiful, hand-embroidered costumes rest on the shoulders of actors and actresses, who glide over a smooth, mirror-like surface. There is also a central platform which can be moved all over the stage, so that at one moment it is a pavilion on water, then a gorgeous royal palace, and then a panorama of an entire, ancient Ming city.

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