JMSC Project to Help Preserve the Traditional Chinese Opera Form of Kunqu

New York based documentary film maker Nancy M. Tong is designing and producing a multi-media project at the JMSC to preserve the Chinese cultural treasure, Kunqu, one of the oldest forms of Chinese Opera.

“The project aims to develop a curriculum on the appreciation of Kunqu, and its rich cultural legacy, that can be taught at any university in the world. ”

Kunqu is Chinese culture in its purest form, an artistic blend of literature, history, music, dance and aesthetics. It is known as the ‘teacher’ or ‘mother’ of Chinese Opera forms, including Beijing Opera, and dominated Chinese theatre from the 16th to 18th centuries. Well known Chinese novelist, Professor Pai Hsien-yung, was instrumental in getting Kunqu listed as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2001. He will be the key advisor of this project that aims to promote the art in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Mainland China and the world.

Kunqu was born some six hundred years ago in the Kunshan area of eastern China and is still performed in the Kunshan dialect. It was the dominant performing art during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Members of the artistic elite would commission writers to pen operas for a small, enclosed audience with little concern for box office takings. The resulting shows were often more refined and sophisticated than other forms of opera, and are noted for their scholarly and lyrical poetry and music. Peppered with political and satirical references, performances could last more than a week.

The art form was popular in Suzhou and Shanghai, and during the early 20th century drew a Western celebrity fan base, including Charlie Chaplin. However, by the mid twentieth century it had nearly died out and was almost lost completely during the Cultural Revolution. Thankfully, the operas survived and enjoyed a new ‘high art’ status. They have been performed recently in celebrated opera houses round the globe, including the Lincoln Centre in Nancy’s native New York.

One such opera, The Peony Pavilion, a popular 16th century musical drama about love, death and resurrection, was adapted by Professor Pai Hsien-yung. The opera, which originally lasted twenty hours, has been condensed to nine hours over the course of three performances. Pai, who had seen Kunqu as a child in Shanghai, remembered it vividly and wanted to breathe life back into the art form. He located two old masters and brought them out of semi-retirement to teach two young performers. Pai was keen to revitalise the art by including young people and taking it to younger audiences. A Youthful Rendition of the ‘Peony Pavilion’ has been welcomed by audiences around the world, with more than one hundred performances staged in Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, America and Europe.

Tong has started to compile material for a multi-media course package, which will include text, audio-visual material and an interactive website with multi-media elements. The JMSC project will also develop a more comprehensive database about Kunqu, including books, journals, DVDs, CDs and photo albums. The project will run until August 2010. She is also teaching a documentary film production course next semester.

Angharad Law