A classic love story from China has been captivating California audiences. The U.S. production of the opera "The Peony Pavilion" is a collaboration between a Taiwanese literary scholar and performers from Jiangsu Province, China.
The Peony Pavilion is probably the most famous play written for the Kunju style of Chinese opera. The form is older and less well known than the flamboyant Beijing style, but its lyrical elegance and delicate tones have a renewed appeal both inside and outside China.
The play is being staged in California by the Suzhou Kunju Opera Theatre from the Jiangsu Province city of Nanjing.
The driving force behind the production is Kenneth Pai, a Chinese-born Taiwanese writer and retired professor of Chinese literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He did a new translation of The Peony Pavilion, and is producing the performances, the most recent staged at the University of California, Los Angeles.
He calls the 400-year-old work a Chinese national treasure.
"It's a literary classic of the Ming Dynasty. Actually, it's the very pinnacle of Chinese opera tradition. It's about romantic love," he said.
The Peony Pavilion has been compared to the Western classic Romeo and Juliet. The Chinese story concerns an official who adheres to strict Confucian morality, and his 16-year-old daughter. She falls in love with a handsome young scholar, whom she sees in a dream. When she fails to find her dream lover, she wastes away and dies.
Actor Tang Rong plays a judge from hell who brings the young woman back to life.
He explains that the gods take pity on her, and revive her so she can find her lover.
Staging the play is a challenge, says lead actress Shen Fengying. A full-length production takes 20 hours. This adaptation is nine hours long, performed in three-hour segments over three evenings, but even this version is daunting. It contains 125 arias and 27 scenes, and Shen Fengying says that is a challenge.
She says the performers are young, in their 20s, and have stamina for the production.
As rehearsals got under way, UCLA stage manager Owen Lewis talked about the challenges facing him. He says other plays are performed the same way night after night, but this one had three separate performances. Each demands extensive preparation by the Chinese cast, and the Chinese and American crewmembers.
"Plus the extreme language differences make things a little more difficult," he said. "I [speak] a little French and a little German, a little Spanish, but absolutely no Mandarin Chinese. So we have to have interpreters and not many of the company speak English, but everything is working out quite nicely."
Choreographer Ma Peiling says the traditional play is presented with a modern flair. The California production mixes old and new styles of dancing. Speaking through an interpreter, she notes that the colorful costumes, including elaborate capes, caused some problems.
"You know, their cape is quite long, but most of the supporting actors are quite short," she noted. "So sometimes they are having difficulty getting out and moving around. Sometimes they step on each other because the costume is already made. They cannot cut one piece."
But the Los Angeles performance went off as planned.
In The Peony Pavilion, the young heroine defies convention, and pursues the man she loves until she finds him. That was shocking 400 years ago, but not today. The theme has an appeal for modern audiences, and the performances are earning mostly praise from U.S. critics. From Los Angeles, The Peony Pavilion will move on to Santa Barbara.