Ancient Kunqu Opera Lives in Shanghai

August 31, 2016, 9:05 AM · SHANGHAI -- On Saturday night I had a wonderful opportunity to see an amazing and utterly unique performance, straight out of ancient times: a performance of Kunqu Opera.

Kunqu Opera is the oldest form of Chinese opera, a 600-year-old art form that tells a story by blending a tonal kind of speaking that is almost singing with intricately choreographed gestures that are almost like dancing. And it's all done in elaborate costumes and make-up.

In order to travel back in time we had to brave modern Shanghai traffic at rush hour. It took about two hours by bus to reach our destination: the water town of Zhujiajio, about 35 miles from Shanghai's city center.

Of course, my first question was, what exactly is a "water town"? The answer is that it's basically a town built on the water, a lot like Venice, and there are a number of them in China that retain their ancient charm, Zhujiajio included.

Laurie in Zhujiajio
Laurie in the Shanghai-suburb water town of Zhujiajio.

Zhujiajio, in the Qingpu District of Shanghai, was built some 1,700 years ago and has a current population of 60,000. The opera took place in a Chinese garden there, and people in town for the Shanghai competition were invited to see it, including jury members.

Oliveira, Cerone, Heifetz
Shanghai jury members Elmar Oliveira, David Cerone and Daniel Heifetz.

Bron, Vera, Boris
Shanghai jury members Zakhar Bron, Vera Tsu Weiling and Boris Kuschnir.

It's obvious to note that the members of the jury have lifelong, vast experience in music, yet after the performance, every one of them admitted that they'd never seen anything like the Kunqu Opera. Even some Chinese in the group were seeing this kind of thing for the first time. They told us that the words used in the opera are old Mandarin, comparable to the old English used in the works of Shakespeare. So the average person, even who spoke Chinese, would probably need some translation.

This particular opera, The Peony Pavilion (Mudan Ting), was written in 1598 by Tang Xianzu (1550-1616). Producers Tan Dun and Zhang JunJ had the idea to create a production in a real garden while they were having tea in a garden and heard the surrounding sounds. Wouldn't a natural setting, with its sounds and sights, make the perfect setting? It did!

Their production, also meant as an outreach to a younger generation, was written up in the New York Times several years ago when they performed the same opera at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Jury member and conductor Long Yu told us that Kunqu artists start their training as early as age five and that much of it is by rote; it's an aural tradition that has been passed from generation to generation for hundreds of years.

Chinese Garden

We saw an abbreviated, 75-minute production that was like something from a completely different world. It opened when a small boat floated past us with two people, one rowing and another playing a bamboo flute (dizi). Then two ornately dressed women began with a very high-pitched and undulating duet of spoken song.

Throughout the work, a floating box in the water flashed subtitles in both English and Chinese. As characters spoke their lines in high falsetto, drawing out syllables in long melismas, they also struck very graceful and calculated poses that looked like moving artworks. One could take a picture at any time in their performance and it would be worthy of a wall in a museum, or at least an excellent magazine photo spread!

The story was a love story of sorts: a girl who dies of longing for her dream-lover is turned back from the underworld so she can find her love in true life. The artists had to act, speak, sing, pose, dance -- it was quite a package, and absolutely beautiful and unforgettable.

Kunqu singers

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September 3, 2016 at 10:48 PM · It's ZhuJiaJiao. I have been there, and seen Kunqu opera at that same garden. It's wonderful. Thanks for the report. You didn't mention the musicians or their instruments!

September 5, 2016 at 06:40 PM · There are many different ways to render the Chinese name of the city, which is three characters. I've seen it Zhu Jia Jiao, Zhu jia jiao, Zhujiajaio, but most often in English I found the latter. There were not many instruments, just two: a flute, as mentioned, and also a kind of zither. No bowed instruments in this performance!

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