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Now the Epic Tale Can Be Told

After all the political fireworks, Chen Shizheng's version of ancient China's 'Peony Pavilion' will at last premiere in the U.S.

July 04, 1999|KEN SMITH | New York-based Ken Smith writes about music and opera

Seated behind a table during rehearsals in rural Massachusetts for "The Peony Pavilion," Chen Shizheng looks less like an opera director than a military commander.

Facing his Chinese forces with complete attention, he wields control on many fronts, not just the usual view through the proscenium but also the sides of the stage, which are fully exposed to audience view.

Chen himself is holed up in his space, his open libretto and musical score surrounded by folded newspapers, half-eaten pastries and partial cups of cold green tea. Every so often, the melodic stream of Chinese both off stage and on is punctuated by ringing from his cellular phone, linking him to headquarters at Lincoln Center, where this production will premiere Wednesday through Saturday.

The military metaphor may seem awkward in the company's rehearsal setting at Jacob's Pillow in the Berkshires, but a year ago it would have been particularly apt.

At that point Chen was completing nearly a year's work on location with the Shanghai Kunju Opera Company, to bring his extravagant 22-hour production of "The Peony Pavilion" to last summer's Lincoln Center Festival. The 400-year-old classic then made headlines when Chinese cultural authorities shot it down for being "feudal, superstitious and pornographic."

Over 10 days of tense negotiations, Chen and festival director Nigel Redden fought for the production's life. By the end, Chen and Redden won a Confucian, face-saving compromise: You get your sets and costumes (which Lincoln Center owned, having invested more than $500,000 in Chinese labor and materials); we keep the 53 actors. Not much consolation for last summer's ticket-holders, but for Redden at least it offered some promise for the future.

After a few months of recovery, both from the strain of creating the monumental production and the struggle to save it, Chen began a task nearly as formidable--taking a once-in-a-lifetime theatrical experience and re-creating it--largely from scratch.

"This year [the company] is different," the once-again-stressed Chen admits during a break in the rehearsal, "but essentially, it's the same production. The vision is still the same."


"The Peony Pavilion," by Ming Dynasty poet and playwright Tang Xianzu, first entered consciousness at Lincoln Center back in 1997, when the festival's founding director, John Rockwell, became determined to stage an authentic "Ming 'Ring,' " as he called it, comparing the 1598 work to the 19th century Wagnerian epic. Though "Peony" has long been considered the masterpiece of China's kunju tradition (one of the ancient tributaries flowing into Peking opera), much of it had been lost and a complete production had not been staged--even in China--for more than a century.

With the Peking opera-trained Chen as guide, Rockwell visited China's kunju companies with opera director Peter Sellars in tow, and, for a time, Rockwell envisioned presenting two contrasting versions--Chen's historical reconstruction and Sellars' radically personal interpretation.

Sellars and Lincoln Center soon parted ways, however, and the American director's vision has since proved prescient: By having Chinese emigre composer Tan Dun compose a new score and working with the expatriate kunju community in Los Angeles, Sellars avoided dealing with the People's Republic of China altogether. As a result, his version is still touring the world.

Chen's production, on the other hand, was at first proclaimed a model of cultural exchange. Besides its all-Chinese cast, it employed hundreds of Chinese craftspeople to make the costumes and sets. Chen, exercising Western notions of authenticity, took great pains to deal not just with the historical script as reassembled by scholars, but also with historical means of presentation.

Chen put on stage not just the central "Romeo and Juliet" love story of "Peony," but also myriad subplots touching every aspect of Ming society, including warriors, prostitutes, scholars, even ghosts. The audience was free to come and go during the performance, just as in the 1500s, and vendors once again strolled through the audience offering tea.

But after a well-received preview performance, Shanghai cultural director Ma Bomin impounded the sets and costumes and unilaterally rescinded the contract with Lincoln Center, which had been signed by the China Cultural Ministry and Ma's own regional bureau.

Ma refused to specify what changes would solve her problems with the production, and Chen wasn't particularly interested in making scattershot deletions of scenes and dialogue that might fall into the "feudal, superstitious and pornographic" categories.

"It was Tang's intention to poke fun at Chinese society--the problems of arranged marriages, of improper conduct by politicians, of religious hypocrisy," Chen says. "All the references--sex and all--are in the original version."

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