New performances delight HK with the magic of Kunqu
The Kunqu Opera Theater of the Jiangsu Performing Arts Group brought a contemporary flair to charm Hong Kong audiences — presenting two performances on Thursday and Friday at Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. It succeeded in exploring the possibilities of combining Chinese traditions with contemporary art ideas.
The 40-year-old theater troupe collaborated with the local, experimental theater company, Zuni Icosahedron to bring fresh elegance and spectacle to Kunqu in a performance of Tang Xianzu’s Dream on Dreams. This is a new-concept Kunqu piece mixing traditional elements of the operatic school with multimedia theatrical devices.
Ke Jun, chief manager of Jiangsu Performing Arts Company, famous Kunqu playwright Zhang Hong and other Kunqu professionals describe the work as play-within-a-play connecting works of Tang Xianzu in a surprising way.
The libretto recounts tale of Tang Xianzu — the celebrated Chinese playwright of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), who falls asleep under a tree. Tang then dreams and encounters characters from his four Chinese classical works: The Story of the Purple Hairpin, The Peony Pavilion, Nanke Story The Han Dan Dream.
The narrative unfolds as Tang retraces the course of his creative struggles. He realizes that he has to reconsider his views about love, life, death and other important topics.
Ke Jun parallels the experimental Kunqu piece with the 2010 sci-fi movie Inception — in which there are different layers of awareness; each is interconnected with other elements.
Like Christopher Nolan, the director of Inception, Ke was curious about the dream concept. He set out to explore the boundary between illusions and reality in Kunqu opera.
Tang Xianzu’s Dream on Dreams is one of Ke’s Kunqu experiments. He utilizes technological tools and a multimedia approach to tell historical stories and legacies.
In Ke’s mind, the most crucial thing is to “show enough respect to Kunqu traditions” instead of “merely displaying the novelty of technology”.
“The core is always Kunqu itself, and contemporary devices, if suitably arranged, may ‘add colors’ to the original pieces.” Said Shi Xiaomei, a renowned Kunqu player who has performed with the Kunqu Opera Theater of Jiangsu Performing Arts Group for 50 years.
The intervention of contemporary art elements, creating a more modern aura, is aimed at reducing the “distance” between Kunqu and the audience. Ke and Shi agree the experiment is working.
Shi had her Hong Kong debut in 1997, and since then has come back frequently to share her thoughts on Kunqu, one of China’s most ancient performing arts. It combines opera, poetry and musical recitals.
Shi has given lectures and taken part in workshops to promote the 600-year-old art form in addition to performing. Hong Kong audiences in the 1990s, more familiar with Peking and Cantonese Opera, knew little about Kunqu. Since then awareness of the art has grown steadily.
Kunqu Opera performers brings a taste of Jiangsu to Hong Kong as they perform in Tang Xianzu’s Dream on Dreams at Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts on Thursday.