THE SEARCH FOR A LOST ART

Kunqu, or kun opera – a 600-year old form of Chinese opera that combines literature, music, dance and drama – has been threatened by the country’s Cultural Revolution and has largely become a lost art even on the continent of Asia, with only six companies still performing.

But thanks to UCSB professor emeritus Kenneth Pai, who has made it his recent life’s work to revitalize the tradition, kun not only lives on but is coming to America – and more importantly, Santa Barbara. Pai single-handedly undertook to adapt the 400-year-old classic “The Peony Pavilion” – which follows the passion of two young lovers and has been compared to Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” – and bring it to the stage in all its wondrous glory.

While Santa Barbarans might like to pride themselves on worldliness, it’s doubtful any locals, save for intrepid world explorers, have ever seen anything like “The Peony Pavilion” before. The production, which incorporates Chinese cultural history with refinement, poetic nuances and deep emotional swings, features a 70-person ensemble including a 20-musician live orchestra, two dozen singers, actors and dancers, plus a dozen acrobats – and more than 200 handmade costumes. Pai handpicked the lead actors from among the most promising young artists who practice the refined art in which the ornamental melodies require both enormous breath control and studied phrasing. The difficult roles also require the singers to simultaneously perform choreographed dance movements with both precision and grace.

Pai pared the original text from a gargantuan 55 scenes that clocked in at more than 20 hours down to a more manageable 27 scenes performed over nine hours. His version will be staged over three successive days at the Lobero Theatre October 6-8.

He discussed the production over the telephone from Irvine, where “Peony Pavilion” would premiere later that night.

Q. Why did you want to adapt this particular opera?

A. The “Peony Pavilion” has been a national treasure of China for centuries. It’s a classic of traditional opera of China and also of the canon of Chinese literature. So it’s always been very popular with Chinese audiences. The themes are about love and death and resurrection, a passionate search for true love, which is a universal theme. It’s an ageless, timeless love story.

What made you decide to undertake such a huge project?

It has been quite an adventure. The kun opera, the genre, is in crisis, because of the Cultural Revolution, which has happened to so many traditional arts in China. We’re just starting to recover from this great devastation. It’s important to keep this art alive, so we endeavored to revive it, modernize it and adapt it to twenty-first century audiences so that this ancient art form can continue. That was the main purpose.

I understand you’ve trimmed both the duration and the number of individual acts in the opera by a factor of two, as well as using younger actors than in traditional productions. What were the reasons for those changes and what other major revisions have you done?

The kun opera is the most refined and elegant art ever performed and it’s a very stylized type of performance so you must respect the tradition and conventions. But we didn’t follow it slavishly because we kept the current generation of audience in mind. So for example, we use many modern elements, the modern stage, modern lighting and costumes, but very carefully, so as not to interfere with the performance of kun opera and to keep the links with the past. It’s a very delicate balance.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in bringing it to stage?

Oh, so many things. First of all, it’s nine hours long, so it’s a huge production. We felt that we needed to do justice to the original because it’s such a beautiful work. In some ways, it’s the Chinese Wagnerian Ring Cycle. It’s an epic opera. So we had to do it that way to do justice to the original. So that raises logistic problems. The costumes alone, we have two hundred pieces, all of them handmade and embroidered. We spent a whole year with the Chinese actors and dancers. We invited two of the top masters just to train these young actors, and that took us a full year. We prepared the whole thing for a year-and-half before our premiere in 2004 in Tai Pei.

You’ve subtitled the production the “Young Lovers” edition. What do you mean?

In many ways the story itself is a celebration of young love, so we focus on that. The original text is fifty-five acts, with several subplots, but we focused on the larger theme of celebration of young love. Secondly, we picked younger actors, which by the way conforms more to the image of the original text. Just like in “Romeo & Juliet,” the heroine is sixteen years old and the handsome scholar is twenty.

I read that it has been a success all across China. But was it embraced by everybody, including traditionalists who may not have wanted to see such changes?

It’s been quite amazing. Fortunately, our production has been extremely popular with college students, which is who we intended it for. We made a campus tour and the students just went wild about it. But also the professors, too. The more mature audiences also approve of it. Just this month at Berkeley the response was typical and both the students and faculty loved it. It’s really a story for all ages.

Was it always part of the agenda to bring it to America?

Yes, that was our dream. We premiere it for American audiences. I think it’s a great sign of cultural exchange, especially on the West Coast where there are so many people who are interested in China.

Why do you think American audiences are finding it so appealing? And beyond that, I’ve also heard that even those who don’t like Asian music or opera in general are loving this show. Why is that?

Kun opera is very different from Peking opera, which is what most people think of as Chinese opera. The music is very melodious, so it’s very pretty to the ear. Secondly, the story itself is universal. And the dance movements are very moving. So it’s a combination of poetry, dance, music, drama and evening martial arts all together to create a magical spectacle.

(Tickets for “The Peony Pavilion” – which will be performed at 7 pm on October 6 and 7, and 2 pm on October 8 – are $100 for gold circle, $45 and $60 for reserved. As might be expected with such an unusual performance, there are several peripheral events prior to the actual staging, two of which have already taken place. Still to come are a free discussion with Dr. Pai and other East Asian language and cultural studies department faculty at UCSB’s Multicultural Center at 4 pm on October 3, and a lecture highlighting the training and performance skills of kunqu actors featuring the performers appearing in the production demonstrating their vocal techniques held at Victoria Hall at 5:30 pm on October 4 [$15 general, $12 OSB subscribers, $5 students; 893-3980]. Call 963-0761 or 893-3535 for tickets and information.)

Veni ‘Viva Verdi’

As fate would have it, “Peony” isn’t the only opera in town this fortnight. Opera Santa Barbara kicks off its 2006-07 season with “Viva Verdi,” an original production written by Granada Theatre’s executive director Peter Frisch and that features some of the composer’s greatest arias. The one-night-only presentation – at the Arlington Theatre on September 29 – posits Verdi in 1880 reminiscing on his career, his operas and the ways in which life and music interweave. An actor will portray the composer while six singers, the Santa Barbara Choral Society and a full orchestra perform selections from such early works as “Nabucco” and “Macbeth” through “Aida” and “Rigoletto.” It’s a fine early entry for the company’s all-Verdi season next February.

The following afternoon, Opera Santa Barbara also presents a special “Kids Day at the Opera,” also at the Arlington, featuring local children’s storyteller Michael Katz weaving tales alongside all of the opera stars from the previous evening together introducing local elementary school kids to the works of Verdi. Children under the age of 12 are admitted free when accompanied by an adult.

Call Opera Santa Barbara at 898-3890, visit operasb.com or call the Arlington at 963-4408 for information and tickets.