Oriental Pagentry in Timeless Form & Color

The rare Kunqu opera, the mother of all Chinese musical drama, peformed for the Austrian Academy of Sciences in January

On The Town | Cynthia Peck | February 2010

In Herbert Rosendorfer’s curious but gentle novel Letters Back to Ancient China, a tale of the adventures of a Mandarin Chinese aristocrat transported to present-day Munich, one thousand years into his future, the protagonist describes his first hearing of the music of "Master Vay-to-feng" (Beethoven): "It goes without saying that I could not appreciate this music, which was in every way different from what I was used to… Although these soft opening notes of the great Master Vay-to-feng made it impossible for me to cling on to my prejudice, at first the music still seemed to me incomplete, as if full of arbitrary holes, in some way imprecise and, of course, confusing. But…I succumbed to the magic… the music finish[ing] with a passage that began as a soft murmuring and ended like the glassy shimmer of a spring breeze."

Surprisingly, this is an apt description of my first hearing of Chinese Kunqu Opera, an experience which also quickly dispelled my prejudice that Chinese opera would sound like some sort of caterwauling.

Kunqu Opera is the oldest form of continuously staged musical theater in the world, having a history of at least 600 years. There are over 300 different forms of Chinese musical drama, but Kunqu is traditionally the mother of them all, and has the distinction of being based on written librettos and having a notation system. Its roots go back to the 14th century, but it was given shape in the 16th century, becoming the most popular form of theater in China for the next 200 years. Only in the late 18th century did an offshoot of Kunqu emerge, the Peking Opera, which today in the West is the more famous and, probably for most, thought to be the only type of opera in China.

Despite its centuries of tradition, Kunqu Opera had never been performed in Austria until last month at the Austrian Academy of Sciences. Two evenings of selected scenes from the most famous Kunqu repertoire were offered by the Suzhou Kunqu Opera Company from Jiangsu, the province on the east coast of China where the opera style originated. One of seven Kunqu troupes in China, this company has toured widely in the last two years, also presenting premiers in London and the U.S.

In a city full of theaters and opera houses one might ask why the Academy of Sciences.

The performances were given within the framework of a musicological project based at the Phonogram Archive (Phonogrammarchiv) of the Academy of Sciences. An Austro-Chinese collaboration headed by Prof. Rudolf Brandl, the Archive’s director, has in the last years filmed over 100 live performances of Kunqu Opera in China, documenting performance style, traditions and development trends. It is the largest collection of such recordings outside China, and the material is steadily being made commercially available in a series of DVDs.

Kunqu Opera is one of the most refined forms of Chinese musical theater, with librettos of the highest literary quality and a strict scheme of singing, recitation, dance and acting. In contrast to the stage that is nearly bare, the colorful costumes are stunning, a stylized form of Ming-era clothing with detailed embroidery, sumptuous fabrics and elaborate headdresses.

The music is languorous, slow-moving and graceful, and the singing is characterized by long undulating melodies ("polished by water" as they are described in Chinese) over a regular even beat. Although the singing has a quite nasal timbre, very different from the resonant voice of European opera, one soon realizes that the European style is also just a convention: both techniques are expressive.

The singing is interspersed with recitation. In spoken Chinese, tones are essential to the language’s meaning: whether a word is spoken at a higher or lower pitch, as well as the rising or falling of the voice in a single word. Thus, the recitation in Chinese opera is also quite song-like, reminiscent of the Sprechstimme in Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire.

A core feature is a highly refined group of movements to convey specific emotions. Even holding the fingers in special ways can indicate feelings such as embarrassment, hopelessness or uncertainty. Also used for dramatic effect are the extremely long white sleeves (called "water sleeves") of the costumes – twirled to give the illusion of running, or lifted to create a screen for a coquettish young woman to peer over. So many details: a tilt of the head, the rolling of the eyes, a raised shoulder. The timing is precise and even casual gestures are unmistakably choreographed.

These gestures blend into a sort of dance. Despite their decidedly stylized form, many of them are understandable to anyone, even across continents, ages and cultures, though from the program notes it is clear that many gestures are so subtle that only the best educated can see them, much less interpret them.

A small instrumental ensemble of ten members sits visible to the right of the stage. The main melodic accompaniment is a bamboo flute, which plays the entire sung melody in unison with the voice. Added for tone color, not harmony, are other instruments: bowed string instruments, lutes, a plucked zither, a mouth organ.

The recitation and acting is accompanied by virtuosic rhythmic patterns from a percussion group made up of drums, a small gong and clappers. The sharp sounds of the percussion underline decisive moments in the drama: the first glance between lovers, the startled shiver when a toe is dipped into cold water.

The Suzhou Company works with Wang Fang, one of the most celebrated actresses in China. She is famous for her role in the classic Kunqu opera The Story of the White Rabbit, which despite its innocuous name is a tale of a family cruelly separated and only much later reunited. The scene she performed was that of a woman giving birth alone, heartrending in its loneliness and pain. But also performed was a scene from The Tale of Grievous Sins, a story of a nun and monk who flee their cloisters, fall in love, and decide to have many children. In a comic and even raucous scene, the former nun persuades the former monk to carry her across a river, amid much banter and feigned helplessness.

Also performed were two scenes from The Peony Pavilion by Tang Xianzu (1550-1616), a contemporary of Shakespeare who has an equivalent status in China. When presented in its entirety of 55 scenes, this opera takes 20 hours and is performed over several days. Maybe then I could get my fill of Kunqu!

Kunqu Opera survived the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s, and was revived in the 1980s by sixteen masters trained in the 1920s who were the only professional Kunqu actors still alive. It is now performed by over 600 singers and instrumentalists in China, and a troupe has even been formed in New York. The Archive in Vienna is assisting this revitalization, not in part by showing the government of China that its cultural riches are appreciated and treasured by people all over the world.

And so I will not "cling on to my prejudice" that great opera remains the prerogative of a few Western opera houses. We must be thankful that Austria, in its great tradition of supporting the arts, also remains committed to supporting culture from all over the world and thus, that we are sometimes given the chance of "succumbing to the magic" of music we have never heard before.


Phonogram Archive of the Austrian Academy of Sciences: www.phonogrammarchiv.at

UNESCO Register of Intangible Cultural Heritage: www.unesco.org/culture/ich/ 

Herbert Rosendorfer, Letters Back to Ancient China, available at Shakespeare and Co. 

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