Newsletter No. 376

No. 376, 19.4.2011 3 ‘O nce I went to a Kunqu performance in Taipei with Prof. Pai Hsien-yung. He said to me: Hua Wei, the audience is getting older and older, and so are the performers. What will become of Kunqu ?’— Prof. Hua Wei of the Department of Chinese Language and Literature recounted the episode that prompted Professor Pai, renowned novelist and essayist, to produce The Peony Pavilion: Young Lovers’ Edition , with which he has nurtured young performers and attracted a younger audience, rejuvenating 600-year-old Kunqu . Director of the Research Centre for Ming-Qing Studies, Prof. Hua Wei is an expert on Chinese opera and a member of the team tasked with abridging the play The Peony Pavilion for the Young Lovers’ Edition . Supported by the CUHK Knowledge Transfer Project Fund, she launched the Kunqu and Cantonese Opera Education and Promotion Project last year. Both Kunqu and Cantonese opera have made UNESCO’s list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. These two opera forms are distinctive yet closely related. By bringing together scholars and performers from Hong Kong and mainland China, the project aims at promoting Kunqu and Cantonese opera to the public and local secondary students, and kindling their interest in traditional Chinese culture. Sowing the Seeds of Chinese Opera The project began in February last year and will end in July this year. It features a demo tour to 11 schools, where about 2,800 students and teachers were given Kunqu and Cantonese opera demonstrations and talks. Kunqu opera appreciation sessions by the Shanghai Kunqu Opera Troupe have also been organized at four local universities, and a seminar held at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre for the public. The project team also carried out interviews with Pak Suet-sin, famous Cantonese opera actress, and Pai Hsien-yung, producer of The Peony Pavilion: Young Lovers’ Edition . Professor Hua described the project as seed sowing. ‘It won’t produce immediate results. But we’ve sown many seeds. Whether they will grow or not will depend on whether they are watered continuously by school teachers.’ She was deeply impressed by one of the secondary schools she visited. ‘Their school building was old and the auditorium wasn’t equipped with a subtitling system. But all the students were so engrossed. It’s because their teachers had given them a lecture on it beforehand. And they all had a printout of the lyrics, which was prepared by their teachers. You can see from this example that school teachers, who have direct contact with the students, are more effective promoters of the art than we are if they’re willing to water the seeds we sowed.’ To help school teachers promote Kunqu and Cantonese opera, the project has set up a website ( mingqing/kunqu-yueju/ ) containing useful information. A video disc will also be produced for that purpose. As a child, Pai Hsien-yung had gone to a performance of Wandering in the Garden, Waking from a Dream , an excerpt from The Peony Pavilion , performed by the legendary maestro Mei Lanfang in Shanghai. The experience was a fond memory and gave rise to his later devotion to the promotion of the art. Prof. Hua Wei said she listened to Shaoxing opera as a baby in her mother’s arms. When she went to the US to work for her PhD, she took a course on the comparative study of Shakespeare and Chinese playwright Tang Xianzu and became a fan of Kunqu . These examples show that early exposure can cultivate an appreciation of traditional operas. Professor Hua sees young people’s preconceptions as the biggest obstacle to their reception of traditional Chinese opera. ‘Most of them haven’t been to any opera performance, but have heard others say that traditional Chinese opera is boring. Our campus demo tour is aimed at changing such preconceptions.’ But she also pointed out that the success of such an activity hinges on the quality of the performers. It is because the demonstrations in schools are given without the advantage of proper lighting and props. If performers don’t perform well, it will leave the students with a negative impression. Traditional Clothing with a Modern Touch In addition to nurturing young performers and audiences, Professor Hua believes that we have to modernize the libretti if we want to rejuvenate Chinese operas. But she emphasizes that ‘modernization’ should not be abused. To modernize, one should, besides preserving tradition, find elements in the work that are relevant to our times, so as to strike a chord with the modern audience. She made a comparison. ‘Modernization doesn’t mean requiring the performers to put on modern costumes and deal with modern affairs. It’s about the modernization of aesthetics. For example, you may find traditional Chinese clothing unfashionable. But with some modern designs, they can look very trendy. This is what I mean by modernization. Aesthetics change over time.’ She used The Peony Pavilion as an example: ‘The original play is very long. It consists of 55 scenes, which contain criticisms about government policies and reflections on problems unique to the Ming dynasty. They’re not matters of concern to modern audiences.’ So, when abridging the play, they chose a universal and eternal concern of humanity— qing (love) as the theme, and made sure the stage and costume designs appeal to the aesthetics of the young. Only by giving traditional operas a modern touch can we inject life into these old performing arts. The students who have been ushered into the garden of traditional operatic art by Prof. Hua Wei would probably give the same exclamation as Du Liniang, heroine of The Peony Pavilion , did on visiting the garden of her home for the first time: ‘Without visiting this garden, how could I ever have realized this splendour of spring!’