Kunqu Opera is one of the oldest forms of opera still existing in China, with its origins dating back to the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). It has distinguished itself by the virtuosity of its rhythmic patterns (changqiang) and has exerted a dominant influence on all the more recent forms of opera in China, including the Sichuan and Beijing operas.
In 2001, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization) proclaimed Kunqu Opera as a masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of humanity (a UNESCO program that ensures that the best of every country's traditions is preserved and developed as well as made known to the outside world).
Kunqu Opera, also called Kunshanqiang, is said to be the mother of all Chinese operas. Its beginnings can be traced to the late Yuan Dynasty, some 600 years ago, in the lower Yangtze Valley. Among the earliest genres of drama, the traditional performing art was named for its birthplace, Kunshan, near the city of Suzhou in today's Jiangsu Province of East China.
The development of Kunqu Opera music went through several stages. In the early days, the songs were composed of long and short lines. The singer sang solo, and the orchestra came in at the end of each line. In the course, only percussion instruments were used.
In the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), reformed by Wei Liangfu during the reign of Emperor Jiajing, Kunqu Opera became mild, smooth, and graceful. The performers attached great importance to clear recitation, correct singing, and pure tunes. Meanwhile, the composers wrote the musical scores after working out the tunes, and the songs were written in seven-character or ten-character lines. Moreover, three types of musical instruments (stringed instruments, bamboo flutes, and drums and clappers) formed the accompaniment. In addition, the jing and chou roles were no longer those exclusively portraying foolish, awkward, or stingy people.
Kunqu Opera is acknowledged as an elegant opera in terms of music, recitation, and the performers' movement. It is foremost acclaimed as "watermill song" because of its soft arias and the graceful movement of its performers. Carrying forward the tradition of ancient poetry and common speech, the art is also of very high literary value.
Kunquhas its own distinctive tunes. The orchestra consists of traditional instruments including the dizi, a horizontal bamboo flute which plays the lead part; the xiao, a vertical bamboo flute; the sheng, a mouth organ; and the pipa, a plucked string instrument with a fretted finger board. Many Chinese local operas are greatly influenced by its tunes and acting style.
Risk of Disappearance
Kunqu Opera, acknowledged as an elite opera, has suffered some of a decline since the eighteenth century because it requires a high level of technical knowledge from the audience. Today, it is facing competition from mass culture and a lack of interest amongst the young. Of the 400 arias regularly sung in opera performances in the mid-20th century, only a few dozen continue to be performed.
The Rebirth of the Kunqu Opera
A young girl appears as soon as the first notes of music are heard. Draped in a richly embroidered costume, she performs graceful hand movements. The elegance of her gestures is enhanced by her long silk sleeves. Accompanied by a flute, she begins to sing and the audience holds its breath.
The scene is an excerpt from The Peony Pavilion, written by Tang Xianzu who lived in 16th century and is now known as "China's Shakespeare." Kunqu Opera is now becoming the object of renewed interest although it has long being threatened with extinction. Since 2001 when Kunqu Opera was proclaimed as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage, the traditional performing art has experienced a rebirth in the past few years. Four classical plays, including The Peony Pavilion, have been restored and updated.
The Peony Pavilion tells the tragic tale of Du Liniang, who dreams during a walk in the park that she meets and falls in love with a young man. Unable to live her dream in reality, she falls mortally ill and, as she is dying, asks to be buried in the garden where she met her beloved. Later, Lui Mengmei, a student on his way to the capital, passes in front of Du Liniang's house and asks to spend the night there. As he sleeps, he dreams about the young girl. Revealing to him that he is the one her heart desires, she asks him to open her coffin. Liu Mengmei does so and Du Liniang comes back to life.
Since 2004, this updated version of the play, produced by Bai Xianyong, one of China's best-known contemporary authors, has been staged in a dozen universities in China. Teachers and students can buy tickets for as little as 10 yuan (US$1.23). Each time the performance attracts a large audience who praises the opera as being very sweet, graceful, and profoundly touching.
The Opera Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Arts maintains a rich collection of written and audiovisual resources and conducts research into a wide range of areas.
The State funds seven permanent theaters, which specialize in Kunqu Opera and encompass a total of 500 practitioners. Two of these theaters also offer classes. The action plan aims to publish a complete edition of the texts of Kunqu Operas since the Ming era, to produce an archive of the expertise of elderly actors through video recordings and to revive those plays which have not been performed for a considerable time.
Furthermore, the actors training program needs to be strengthened to allow an intake of around 10 students per year and to be widened to incorporate training for technical experts, researchers, and directors.