Arts + Culture

Chinese Kun Opera Masterpiece ‘The Peony Pavilion’ Opens UCLA Live’s Fifth International Theatre Festival Sept. 29–Oct. 1


UCLA Live kicks off its Fifth International Theatre Festival with one of the world'slandmark operas, the 400-year-old Chinese masterpiece "The Peony Pavilion,"written and produced by Kenneth Pai, directed by Wang Shiyu and performed bythe Suzhou Kun Opera Theater of JiangsuProvince in its Los Angeles debut. This abridged version of the original sweeping text, a Chineselove story often compared to "Romeo and Juliet," is presented in three parts over three nights.

Book I, "The Dreamof Love," will be performed 8 p.m., Friday, Sept. 29; Book II, "Romance andResurrection," at 8 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 30; and Book III, "Reunionand Triumph," at 7 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 1 at Royce Hall on the UCLAcampus. Each performance is approximately three hours long, including anintermission, and can be enjoyed as a single event or as part of a three-partseries. For tickets, call (310) 825-2101or visit

While this groundbreaking 16th-centuryopera has been seen in the United States in three previous incarnations, Pai's 2004 production is regarded asthe most faithful modern restoration of the original kun opera to date.A world-renowned Chinese novelist who has been a professor of Chineseliterature and cultural studies at the Universityof California, Santa Barbara, Kenneth Pai wrote and produced this version ofthe Ming Dynasty opera. Director WangShiyu is an internationally renowned kun opera artist and formerdirector of Zhejiang Peking and Kun Opera Arts Theatre. The cast includes 12 young actors and singers trained at the Suzhou KunOpera Theater of Jiangsu Province. Suzhouis the birthplace of kun opera (also called kunqu, literally thesongs of kun), the oldest living operatic tradition in China.

"The Peony Pavilion" is thefinest example of kun opera, a 500-year-old art form that combinesliterature, music, dance and drama with extraordinary purity and precision.Often compared to its more flashy descendant Pekingopera, kun forgoes elaborate stage settings in favor of colorful makeup,extravagant headgear and striking handmade costumes that emphasize performers'movements, mirroring the elegance of calligraphic brush strokes.

Kun opera's long, melodious arias, accompaniedchiefly by the bamboo flute, in addition to other woodwind and plucked stringinstruments, are valued not only for the notes that are played, but also forthe librettos that continue to be read as literary works of art. Complementingthe lyricism and beauty of the music are the flawless dancing and actingstyles, where even the simplest movements have been precisely choreographed andhanded down through generations.

"The Peony Pavilion" wasoriginally written in 1598 by Tang Xianzu, a contemporary of WilliamShakespeare, and shares "Romeo and Juliet's" power and magic of youthful lovewhich triumphs over social convention. Considered the most beautiful love storyin Chinese literature, "The Peony Pavilion" was radical for its time, given itscelebration of eroticism, female sexuality and power, and marriage forged bylove. The opera, written during the time of Confucian orthodoxy, challenged thestrict codes of rationality, moral correctness and social etiquette thatpredominated. Tang Xianzu, a member of a new breed of thinkers, believed in theprimacy of innate human emotion rather than a restrictive moral code.

The story of "The PeonyPavilion" revolves around the passion between Liu Mengmei, a handsome youngstudent, and Du Liniang, the daughter of a high official who has an eroticdream about Liu Mengmei only to discover upon awakening that her lover was amere fantasy; she literally dies of a broken heart. Meanwhile Liu Mengmei, whosimultaneously had dreamed of Du Liniang, becomes enraptured by her beauty whenhe accidentally discovers the girl's self-portrait hidden in her family'sgarden. Although Du Liniang is now a ghost, the two make love and agree tomarry. Liu Mengmei has his lover disinterred, despite the risk of execution forgrave robbery. Her body becomes flesh again. Moved by the deep love between LiuMengmei and Du Liniang, the emperor pardons Liu Mengmei's actions and ordersthe lovers to marry, an unorthodox decision at a time when arranged marriageswere the accepted custom. In short, it is a story of the triumph of love.

Unlike recent contemporaryproductions of the opera, which fused kun music with other regionalChinese or modern musical genres, the score for Pai's version uses TangXianzu's lyrics, which are accompanied by period instruments. The music primarilyconsists of arias with dialogue and asides interwoven. And unlike Peking opera, in which dance is incidental, kun operamakes dance an integral element, with the performers wearing long white sleevesthat amplify their movement.

Countering the tradition or putting veteran performers inthe leading roles, Pai selected two young stars from the Suzhou Kun OperaTheater of Jiangsu Province — ShenFengying in the role of Du Liniang and Yu Jiuling in the role of Liu Mengmei — in order to moreaccurately portray the story of young love as well as attract youngeraudiences. Both artists trained at the SuzhouKun Opera Theater of Jiangsu Province, a troupe renowned for its classicalmethods and unique location near Kunshan, the birthplace of kun opera.

"The Peony Pavilion: Young Lovers' Edition" had its worldpremiere at the National Theatre in Taipei, Taiwan, in April 2004, followed by performancesin Hsinchu, Taiwan; Hong Kong; Suzhou; Hangzhou; Beijing; Shanghai; Macau;Tianjin and Nanjing, among other Chinese cities.

The U.S. engagement of "The Peony Pavilion" alsoincludes performances at the Universityof California, Berkeley's Cal Performances (Americanpremiere, Sept. 15–17); UC Irvine (Sept. 22–24); and UC Santa Barbara (Oct. 6–8).

The UCLA Centerfor Chinese Studies, in conjunction with UCLA Live, will present free 20-minutepre-performance talks one hour prior to each performance, for ticket holdersonly. The talks will take place in 314 Royce Hall, and will be conducted bySusan Jain Pertel, Richard Strassberg and Haiping Yan. Seating is limited. Forreservations, call (310) 825-3827.

UCLA Live's 2006–07 Fifth International Theatre Festival

       Friday–Sunday,Sept. 29–Oct. 1. The Suzhou Kun Opera Theater of Jiangsu Province,in its Los Angeles debut, performs "The Peony Pavilion."

       Saturday–Sunday,Sept. 30–Oct. 8. Playwright and performer Heather Woodbury'sworld premiere of "Taleof 2Cities" is atime-traversing, two-part saga that looks at the Brooklyn Dodgers' move to LosAngeles from New York in 1957 and the lasting effect it has had on threegenerations of characters from both locales.

       Wednesday–Sunday,Oct. 11–15. The L.A premiere of Andrew Dawson's "Absenceand Presence," anaward-winning entry at the 2005 Edinburgh Festival, is an eloquent and sometimesfunny meditation using sculpture, video, mime and Dawson's father's letters toreflect on grief, regret and the unique emotions brought on by the death of aparent.

       Tuesday–Sunday, Nov. 7–12. The Gare St. Lazare Players Ireland usherin the Samuel Beckett CentenaryCelebration with their performance of "Access All Beckett: Five Dramatic Recitals of Prose and One LateDrama," featuring celebratedactor Conor Lovett.

       Wednesday–Sunday, Nov. 15–19. The Beckett Centenary continues as the Gate Theatre Dublin returnsto Los Angeleswith their definitive version of"Waiting for Godot," an encore engagementfeaturing the original director and most of the original cast.

       Tuesday–Sunday,Nov. 28–Dec. 10. Mabou Mines' "DollHouse," in itsWest Coast premiere, is an OBIE Award-winning adaptation of Henrik Ibsen'soriginal text, directed by the iconoclastic Lee Breuer. Set amid furniture ofdollhouse-sized proportions, men (portrayed by actors less than 4-and-a-halffeet tall) dominate women (played by actresses nearly 6 feet tall) in asurrealistic feminist anthem.

       Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 12, 14,16 and 17. Canada's acclaimed experimental theater companySTO Union unites actors, writers,architects and video artists to cultivate new forms of theatrical expression. "Revolutionsin Therapy" is a multimedia work questioning psychoanalysis, religion andcapitalism.

       Wednesday,Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 13, 15, 16 and 17. STO Union's"Recent Experiences" is the story of a family's fourgenerations and their journey through the 20th century, performed with theaudience intimately seated at a large table surrounding the actors. Verylimited seating available.

The UCLA LiveInternational Theatre Festival is supported in part by an award from the NationalEndowment for the Arts, which believes that a great nation deserves great art.


Tickets for "The Peony Pavilion" are available for $65, $46 and $30 per part; the three-part series can bepurchased at a 15 percent discount, for $175 and $126. Tickets can be purchasedonline at, in person at the UCLA CentralTicket Office at the southwest corner of the James West Alumni Center, bycalling (310) 825-2101 and at all Ticketmasteroutlets.UCLA students may purchase tickets in advance for $17. Studentrush tickets, subject to availability, are offered at the same price to allstudents with a valid ID one hour prior to showtime.

UCLA Live isan internationally acclaimed producer and presenter of music, dance, theaterand spoken word, bringing hundreds of outstanding and provocative artists to Los Angeles each year.



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