Chinese music composer Tan Dun (center) appears on stage following a performance of The Peony Pavilion at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art on November 30 (STEPHANIE BERGER)
Patrons at a preview performance praised Tan's modern interpretation of The Peony Pavilion, saying the composer's abbreviated distillation resonates with Western audiences. Joan Lebold Cohen, a Chinese art historian, photographer and curator, said while the long-winded traditional Kunqu Opera usually puts her to sleep, she enjoyed Tan's staging.
"I learned to sleep sitting up during Kunqu performances," Cohen said. "But this was great. Fantastic job."
Zhu Wanjin, Deputy Consul General of China in New York, said viewing classical Chinese opera at the Met was a unique experience.
"It was very exciting for me to watch the show within such a small distance from the performers. Kunqu Opera is one of the intangible cultural heritages of China," said Zhu. "The Peony Pavilion is about a love story. Love lies inherent in human beings; it is also an everlasting topic in art creation worldwide."
Symbolically, as this year marks 40 years of diplomatic relations between the United States and China, the performance of traditional Chinese opera at one of the leading American art institutions is "meaningful in terms of cultural exchange and communication," Zhu said.
"The 70-minute version of The Peony Pavilion is also valuable and innovative in terms of how to refine Chinese classical operas, making them understood by local audiences. Even in modern China, classical operas are less prevalent among people in recent years than ever before since many such operas tend to be lengthy and progress at a very slow pace, which do not cater to the taste of current audiences," Zhu told Beijing Review. "The highly condensed version of The Peony Pavilion, with its clearer topic, fewer protagonists and aesthetic scene, promotes a closer communication between the actors and the audience, allowing the classical opera to be more acceptable and understandable to the local audience. Viewed from an international cultural exchange perspective, this is undoubtedly a successful starting point for the traditional Chinese opera to gain popularity among Western audiences."
Tan said his approach is "hi-tech organic" and a "vegetarian" revolution against the trend to beef up traditional operas with grand compositions and big orchestras. The sound of the gong and the water from the fish pond begins the performance, a symbolic transportation into the gardens of the Song (960-1279) and Ming dynasties. The dialogue between the sounds of the pond and willow is simple and natural, but is a metaphor for the larger story and represents the relationship between modern China and its traditional culture. "Real China" can be found in the silences between arias of the traditional Kunqu, recounting the journey of the two lovers, he said.
"It's like the unrolling of a hand scroll because you cross the section of brocade before you enter the painting proper. That brocade is called the ge shui—the moat—and every Chinese painting from the Ming Dynasty on features a little stream and a bridge that the viewer is invited to cross in a movement of time and space. You're leaving your world behind and entering into the world of the painting," Hearn said. "[Tan has] recreated this in sound. It's a portal into this Ming world and also a portal from New York to Suzhou."
For Tan, the staging of The Peony Pavilion represents a more personal journey into the past, when he was searching for "beautiful China" while living as a student in New York. His Columbia professors taught him "how to be complex, but not about simplicity." The reality, Tan said, is that success is found within simplicity.
"I feel revolutionary again, where has this beautiful China gone?" Tan said. "I tried to find China from New York—and I did."
Behind The Peony Pavilion
In four scenes, instead of the original 55, Tan's The Peony Pavilion tells the classic story of the lovesick maiden Du Liniang and the scholar Liu Mengmei. Du and Liu first meet in a dream, and when Du awakens without her love she falls ill and dies from loneliness. She leaves behind a self-portrait, which Liu uses to resurrect his ghostly wife. Tan used only a few instruments—the bamboo flute, lute, the guqin (zither) and percussion—as well as the sounds of water for an elegant, sparse interpretation of the Chinese classic written by Tang Xianzu (1550-1616).
Tan performed his arrangement for two years in a garden in Suzhou, a picturesque town outside the city of Shanghai, where it was seen by Maxwell Hearn, Asian Art Curator for New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Hearn invited Tan to bring the performance for a special showing in New York City.
"The one challenge we have is that the garden is very small and the fire code prevents us from having more than 50 individuals in the garden as an audience, because of the number of people who are in the performance itself," said Hearn.
Zhang Ran, who played the maiden Du Liniang, said adapting the opera to the gallery space was difficult.
"We are much closer to the audience in [the New York Met's] Astor Court. Each of our movements and expressions on our faces and in our eyes is closely observed by the audience, which is a greater challenge for us," she told Beijing Review.