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Talk About a Global Epic

A masterpiece of China's kunju opera was set for two full-scale Western stagings. Then . . .

July 26, 1998|Greg Sandow | Greg Sandow is a music critic and reporter for the Wall Street Journal and other publications

This is the saga of "The Peony Pavilion."

It begins with two competing American producers, who each plan to stage this classic Chinese opera in the West--one of them L.A.'s own perpetual enfant terrible Peter Sellars.

Along the way, it links Henry Kissinger, three leading Chinese artistic emigres, a host of craftspeople and performers, and two formidable retired divas, Beverly Sills, and from the world of Peking opera, Ma Bomin, who now rules all Shanghai culture.

In the end, only one Western production survives--at least for now.

"Mundan Ting"--"The Peony Pavilion"--is a masterpiece of China's kunju opera tradition, a style native to Shanghai, older than the more famous Peking opera and thought to be more refined and lyrical. Performed complete, it's 22 hours long; it was written by poet and playwright Tang Xianzu in 1598, when Shakespeare was starting his career in England and Monteverdi was writing the first important Western operas in Italy.

But if its length is matched only by Wagner's "Ring," its romantic story echoes one of the most familiar themes in both the East and the West--even the purest love can be blocked by war, politics and stifling social conventions. There's also a ghost story, which is typically Chinese. One lover dies, but the love affair continues. "Her body is still in perfect form," explains a synopsis. "She begs her beloved to dig her up so she can return to the world."

At the end of the 22 hours, she's alive again and married to the hero. Meanwhile, we've seen more parallels to Western drama. Like Shakespeare's history plays, "The Peony Pavilion" epic is diverse and sprawling, full of subplots that introduce warriors, royalty, scholars and ordinary folk, illuminating conditions both in the Song dynasty (ending in 1279), when the story takes place, and the Ming dynasty, when it was written. The opera has the sweep of great literature, but it's all but unknown outside China.

But now turn the spotlight on John Rockwell and Peter Sellars.

Rockwell, editor of the Sunday Arts & Leisure section of the the New York Times and director of the Lincoln Center Festival from its founding in 1996 until early this year, "heard about this 'Peony' thing" sometime in the '80s. "I'm bemused by huge things," he says. "Wagner, for instance, and the long Robert Wilson productions at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I thought 'The Peony Pavillion' was a Ming 'Ring,' and the idea went into my brain and stayed there."

When he got his job at Lincoln Center, he was determined, he says, "to present works of scale," and "The Peony Pavilion" was an obvious choice.

But he wasn't the only one with "Peony" on his mind. "I've been working on this piece for nine years," announces Peter Sellars, who is quick to recall that he presented scenes from it at the 1990 Los Angeles Festival. "I worked with Hua Wenyi, the most famous Chinese classical actress, [former head of the Shanghai Kunju Opera Company,] and reigning master of the kunju tradition. She and several members of her company were living in America, working in restaurants and video stores. She said, 'My tradition will die in one generation unless you do something!' "

Rockwell, meanwhile, had his own Chinese collaborator, Chen Shizheng, a singer, actor, director, and choreographer in his 30s who was born in China and came to the United States 11 years ago. Chen was the supple highlight of last fall's "Marco Polo," an impressionistic opera by the Chinese composer Tan Dun that played to sold-out houses in New York. Chen, too, has credentials in Chinese opera, and he and Rockwell planned a trip to China in March 1997 to visit, as Rockwell says, "five of the six existing kunju companies, to see what kind of 'Peony' tradition might still be extant."

"But then it turned out that Peter was working on a parallel 'Peony Pavilion' project," Rockwell adds, "so I invited him to come along."

What they saw were excerpts from the work, which are all that survive in current Chinese performance, usually staged for a small and aging audience. All three travelers were inspired to restore the work to its former glory--but in very different ways.

Rockwell took his cue from the Western "early music" movement, which plays Bach in a reconstructed version of 18th century style. Why not do the whole "Peony Pavilion," he thought, in a production in which each detail would both come alive as art and be justified through the finest scholarly research?

Sellars disagreed. In the first place, he says, you can't reconstruct the original. The words exist, but the music doesn't. Rockwell answers that the music was written down, but Sellars scoffs that the notation is vague, so vague that any reconstructed "Peony" would be "literally a fabrication."

In any case, Sellars adds, "the notion of 'authentic performance' is laughable in China. It's a Western idea."

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