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Modern Kunqu Opera Tells Ancient Historian's Story

Over the past five years, Luo Huaizhen, a Shanghai-based opera writer, has been attempting to prove that Kunqu opera is not only an old art that can be appreciated by modern audiences, but also a way of communication that can connect people with the past.

The effort is obvious in his latest work Ban Zhao, a six-act Kunqu opera to be staged at the Shanghai Yifu Theatre from March 25 to 29 by the Shanghai Kunqu Opera Troupe. The opera follows the life of Ban Zhao (about49-120), a female historian of the East Han Dynasty (25-220). Born into a family of historians, Ban Zhao loved to read books in her formative years. After her father and brother died, she carried on their work of writing history books. For years, she worked hard without enjoying normal family life - she married, but her husband left her because he could not bear to marry a woman who wrote all day long. But Ban Zhao persevered until she finished her works in her 70s, dying in solitude.

"In the opera, I wanted to express my respect for the intellectuals in this society who work hard to realize their ideals without caring for material benefits," said Luo, who is an intellectual himself. The script took him nearly five years to write and edit. "I feel Ban Zhao has great current and universal significance," said Luo.

The opera is also an attempt to reform Kunqu Opera, especially the dialogue. In Kunqu Opera, lines that can be sung are not spoken and songs are not sung without the accompaniment of dancing or movements. "But this means the dramatic rhythm is slowed down," said Cai Zhengren, a director of the Shanghai Kunqu Opera Troupe. "Violence cannot be conveyed properly either."

In Ban Zhao, large sections of spoken dialogue are used, striking a great contrast with Kunqu Opera classics like Peony Pavilion and The Romance of West Chamber.

"Actually, like any other opera, Kunqu Opera is made up of four parts - songs, dialogue, acting and martial arts," commented Luo. "But over the past century, dialogue has been neglected with the introduction of spoken drama because it is commonly believed that one feature that distinguishes the two dramatic forms is the use of dialogue."

Dialogue is certainly quite differently expressed. While a spoken drama requires an everyday, realistic style, dialogue in Kunqu Opera rhymes and is literary, making it quite hard to understood for the untrained, modern ear.

"What we are trying to do is to read plain and less literary dialogues in a rhyming, Kunqu style," said Cai. "In this way, audiences can understand what we are saying on stage without feeling that we are presenting a spoken drama instead of a Kunqu Opera piece."

Unlike traditional Kunqu Opera, Ban Zhao has more dialogue than songs. Instead of promoting the plot, songs are used as a way of expressing inner feelings.

In Ban Zhao, the dialogues have more functions. They are not only used to explain the plot, but also to express feelings at critical moments when a monologue or a song would take too long. At the opera's climax at the end of the fourth act, Ban Zhao sings no songs to express her shock, pain and anger on hearing about the death of her beloved husband, who no longer loves her. All is conveyed by the short sentence: "Give me back my husband."

"It is more realistic," said Zhang Jingxian, who plays Ban Zhao. "At a critical moment, people will say short or even discontinued words to express themselves instead of singing songs and dancing, as in traditional Kunqu Opera."

According to Yang Xiaoqing, director of the opera, what they are trying to do is to give the opera back its original flavor.

"Over the past few decades, Chinese operas have generally been regarded as a highly formulated art form, which means that the true inner feelings of the characters have been neglected for the sake of exterior movements," said Yang, a veteran Yueju Opera director, who is directing Kunqu Opera for the first time.

This has been the third historical opera produced by the Shanghai Kunqu Opera Troupe over the past 20 years, the other two being Emperor Tang Taizong in the mid-80s and Sima Xiangru in the early 1990s.

"By staging this historical Kunqu opera, we intend to promote new works and explore new concepts of Kunqu opera," said Cai. "We want to prove that instead of being a dying art, Kunqu opera is closely associated with modern life."

This is also Luo's reason for writing the work. "I do not want to hear that we should respect Kunqu opera - what I want to hear is that people have liked the opera and the protagonist in it," he said.

(China Daily 03/23/2001)

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