One master's dedication to the Kunqu legacy
By Wang Ruohan  ·  2023-08-08  ·   Source: NO.32 AUGUST 10, 2023
On the evening of June 22, a Kunqu Opera performance titled The Peony Pavilion, an epic romantic tragicomedy based on a short story from the Song Dynasty (960-1279), took to the stage of Beijing's Northern Kunqu Opera Theater, starring Wei Chunrong in the role of the female protagonist, Du Liniang. Despite having performed the part on stage over 300 times, Wei still arrived at the theater four hours early, being the first actress backstage to get her makeup done and inspect the props. This is a habit she's maintained ever since first entering the world of Kunqu in 1982.

At 7:00 p.m. sharp, The Peony Pavilion opened to a packed audience. Wei, dressed in a delicate pink gown, enchanted onlookers with her exquisite singing as her gently waving fingers seemed to point to a distant dream. Her flawless performance took the audience on a journey into the depths of Kunqu.

Wei Chunrong as Du Liniang in The Peony Pavilion, a classic romantic tragicomedy in Kunqu Opera(COURTESY PHOTO)

One minute takes 10 years

Kunqu Opera originated in the town of Kunshan near today's Suzhou City, Jiangsu Province, some 600 years ago. It is an old drama style listed as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2001. One of the oldest traditional Han Chinese operas, Kunqu is reputed as the "ancestor of Chinese dramas" and the "mother of Chinese operas."

"One minute on stage requires 10 years of practice offstage" is a well-known mantra in the Chinese opera community. And Wei, a pillar of the Northern Kunqu Opera Theater and a recipient of China Theater Plum Blossom Award—the highest honor in the Chinese theater industry, certainly can vouch for that.

Her first stage appearance was in a performance of A Surprising Dream, one of the scenes from The Peony Pavilion. Wei and other girls portrayed the flower goddesses; they were both excited and exhausted. The next morning, when the teacher went to wake them up for their daily morning practice, the girls didn't want to get up, saying, "We had a performance yesterday, so can't we skip practice today?" Their teacher replied, "There's no such thing." One by one, the teacher got them up and off to practice as always.

Like ballet, the pursuit of a career in Chinese opera demands training from a young age. Wei began her six-year learning journey at the Northern Kunqu Opera Theater at the age of 10. The first two years were dedicated to mastering the fundamentals of physical flexibility and coordination. In the years that followed, she honed her performance skills, including the use of essential props such as fans, handkerchiefs and swords, as well as singing techniques.

But it's not just young trainees who have to go through these arduous and rather monotonous basic exercises every day; full-fledged opera performers, too, still put these exercises on their daily checklist.

When asked if she ever considered giving up performing, Wei firmly replied, "Never once did that thought cross my mind. The captivating beauty of Kunqu and the invaluable guidance and encouragement from my mentors have shaped me as a person."

For Wei, the Northern Kunqu Opera Theater became a second home. The institution not only nurtured her artistic talents but also provided her with the care and love from her teachers.

"Our teachers raised us. They understood our practice was dull and painful, so they would often invite us to their homes on weekends and prepare some delightful meals for us. After each performance, they would bring us our favorite foods and fill us with warmth," Wei said, her face beaming like that of a child as she revisited the fond memories.

When teaching traditional masterpieces like The Peony Pavilion, the mentors will patiently guide their students through every gesture, movement, sound and internal motivation of the characters, she said. For instance, if a student's movement does not have the desired aesthetic effect, a teacher will have them mimic their own performance style. Even more importantly, mentors explain the emotional mindset of the characters, such as the overwhelming feelings of love at first sight when the male and female protagonists in The Peony Pavilion first meet, enabling the students to deliver a more compelling performance, she added.

"The reason these traditional masterpieces are presented so well on stage is due to the efforts of many generations of performers. Through training and stage experience, they add their own insights to the existing and evolving legacy, continuously refining their performances to bring these plays as close to perfection as they possibly can," Wei said.

Under the meticulous guidance of her mentors and through persistent practice, Wei went on to blossom into a leading actress of Kunqu Opera.

Passing the torch

Kunqu bloomed during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), but this thriving period ended abruptly in the mid-Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), leading to the genre's decline. Its lyrics, originally elegant and flowery, eventually became obscure and incomprehensible, while its melodies slowed down to what some inheritors called a "funereal level." Kunqu therefore became unacceptable to all but a small number of dedicated aficionados.

But when UNESCO officially listed Kunqu Opera as intangible cultural heritage in 2001, the dramatic art returned to the spotlight.

Wei was one of the performers who were invited to Paris, France, to perform at the UNESCO headquarters right after the successful inscription of Kunqu.

"When our application proved successful, we were all so happy and proud. However, I suddenly realized that the inscription of Kunqu as intangible cultural heritage actually signified its decline and that it required protection." Since then, Wei has dedicated herself to preserving and passing on her beloved art of Kunqu.

The preservation of Kunqu Opera relies on two key elements: the quality of the plays and all the people involved in bringing them to the stage.

A repertoire is the foundation of any opera genre, requiring the protection of and transmission by performers. Wei discovered that even though the Kunqu repertoire had over 700 plays, fewer than 100 are commonly performed on stage. The revival of these other little-known classic pieces relies on senior artists passing on the artistic torch.

Intangible cultural heritage like Kunqu Opera demands the emotional and skillful connections between generations of inheritors to stay alive and vibrant throughout the centuries.

As a member of the Beijing Municipal Committee of China's political advisory body, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), Wei proposed expanding the repertoire and strengthening the professional development of Kunqu artists at the First Session of the 13th Beijing Municipal Committee of the CPPCC in 2018.

Her proposal calls, among other things, for an increased teaching remuneration for Kunqu artists to give them more incentive in passing on the remarkable heritage.

When it comes to contemporary adaptations, Wei actively participates in scriptwriting, leveraging her decades of stage experience to enrich the characters' actions and songs and enhance the overall performance style.

To address the lack of young talent in Kunqu, Wei herself today also mentors younger actors, doing for them what her teachers did for her. Offstage, Wei is their friend and confidant; onstage, she aims to bring out the best in them as performers of the art through her masterly knowhow and strict demands.

"By preserving these plays and protecting the performers, Kunqu can continue to be passed down for generations to come," Wei declared.

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon

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