Saturday, December 18, 2010

Feminist reading of The Peony Pavilion

A short blog entry on the website for Bitch Magazine recently detailed a reader's first impressions of Tang Xianzu's Mudan ting (The Peony Pavilion) from a feminist perspective.  Contrary to the very basic explanatory nature of most Chinese opera articles written by or for non-Chinese speakers, it's my hope that we'll continue to see a rise in Chinese opera analysis in English language media that examines social and historical themes in greater detail.  Chally Kacelnik writes:

There is a world of things I could say about this play... It’s really cool to see a play with such respect for a young woman’s sexual desires where chastity was so highly prized. Du is a tenacious character, and the play is worth reading just for her. There’s a kind of desperately sad joy in her that reaches across the ages to me, and frankly I’m amazed to find a work in which the lady lead dies for her man (ugh) yet retains an independent, wonderful spirit.

I'm less than enthused about Kacelnik's assumption that the Du Liniang (the leading protagonist in The Peony Pavilion) is one we've "never heard of", as stated in her opening paragraph.  Probably not intended as such, this strikes me as Western arrogance and ignores the large Chinese community in the United States, the country in which Bitch Magazine is published, that may very well be familiar with an icon like Du Liniang, the heroine of one of China's most recognizable classics (of Shakespearean proportion, if you need a Western reference).  However, she does go on to mention the cult-like status that The Peony Pavilion achieved in the 17th century, remaining a reference in Chinese culture today.  Despite my small qualm, the blog entry is certainly worth a look for its comments on the text of Mudan ting and its performance context, as well as for English translation recommendations:

Read the article HERE.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Peony Pavilion - Condensed and Updated Kunqu Version in Shanghai

This article from September details the struggle in China to preserve Kunqu opera and earn the appreciation of new audiences through an updated version of The Peony Pavilion.  The production's director, lead actor and producer Zhang Jun believes that modernizing the opera is one way to build a new fan base:

Performed in the Qing-style Kezhi Garden, the hour-long “Peony Pavilion” isn’t simply catering to Kunqu opera lovers. The show has been updated to appeal to a wider audience, hoping to revive the art. The most striking change is that instead of the full 18-hour long show, which was presented in 1999 at New York’s Lincoln Center Festival, the Zhujiajiao performance is only 60 minutes, condensed for the modern Chinese audience. Less time means a need for greater impact in those 60 minutes, so this time around, Oscar-winning composer Tan Dun and choreographer Huang Doudou, one of China’s most celebrated modern dancers, are both part of the abbreviated production.  

Read the entire article HERE
I'm not sure how I feel about adding sleek production elements and celebrity figures to help bring about a new fan base for Chinese opera (this strikes me as rather flashy and out of context), but all art forms undergo stylistic changes as a result of the era in which they're produced.  On that note, I see no reason why modernized operas shouldn't receive critical attention, but I also hope that historical research and carefully examined source materials (like those that were considered for the making of 1999's full-length Peony Pavilion) will continue to inform traditional Chinese opera productions of quality alongside other modernized versions.   

The Peony Pavilion - Kunqu production by Chen Shi Zheng

It is perhaps fitting that this blog's inaugural post is dedicated to its namesake, The Peony Pavilion by Ming Dynasty playwrite Tang Xianzu.  This classic story has been reinterpreted countless times in various opera styles for centuries. In 1999, New York's Lincoln Center Festival in partnership with the Festival d'Automne in Paris supported the enormous undertaking of staging all 19 hours of the Kunqu (Kun) version of The Peony Pavilion (Kunqu being one of the earliest known forms of Chinese Opera with origins dating back to the Yuan Dynasty).  The fruits of this great effort resulted, back in the days of VHS, with a two tape set including a documentary on how the production came about, its approach and staging, and included interviews with Chen Shi-Zheng, music director  Zhou Ming, and leading performers Qian Yi (Beautiful Du) and Wen Yu Hang (Liu Mengmei). The film can be quite difficult and expensive to obtain.  Fortunately, the documentary about the production is now available for viewing on Classic T.V. free of charge : HERE

The performance can be viewed in its entirety  with English subtitles on the same site (also free of charge):
 PART 1: The Interrupted Dream