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A long passion for a Chinese opera

An ambitious version of the romantic saga `The Peony Pavilion' arrives, with help from scholar and writer Kenneth Pai.

September 20, 2006|Scarlet Cheng | Special to The Times

Four hundred years ago, the poet Tang Xianzu wrote the Chinese version of "Romeo and Juliet" -- except that for his Juliet, the power of love manages to overcome social censure, as well as death itself. Tang's epic opera, "The Peony Pavilion," is one of the most celebrated in Chinese drama, and the 19-hour, 55-scene work has been a lifelong fascination of Kenneth Pai, a noted Chinese American writer, retired University of California professor and, now, theater impresario.

Pai has spent the last three years shaping an ambitious new nine-hour "Peony," and after lauded appearances in China, this version, called "the young lover's edition," has landed in California. It will be performed over several nights this week at the Barclay Theatre at Irvine and next weekend at Royce Hall at UCLA, where it launches UCLA Live's Fifth International Theatre Festival. The final stop will be the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara.

"My encounter with 'The Peony Pavilion' was predestined," says Pai, sitting in his Santa Barbara living room amid framed Chinese calligraphy and landscape paintings. "I was 9 years old in Shanghai, after the war. The great actor Mei Lanfang -- after eight years of not performing, he was in Hong Kong in exile during the war -- had come back to Shanghai and was performing. It was a big sensation," Pai says, lighting up at the memory.

The boy sat transfixed as Mei, who specialized in female roles, played "Peony's" heroine, Du Liniang, in the opera's famous "Interrupted Dream" sequence -- a highly stylized recounting of an erotic encounter with a dream lover. Mei was famous for Peking opera, but "Peony" is written in the kunqu style, the mother of Chinese opera forms. "I remember most vividly the music -- it was haunting!" says Pai, emphasizing the last word. "It was the music that stayed in my mind all my life."

Pai and his family left Shanghai for Taiwan after the Communist takeover in 1949, and in 1963 he came to the United States to study creative writing at the University of Iowa. Two years later he landed a job teaching at UC Santa Barbara, where he remained until he retired in 1994. He became famous in the Chinese-speaking world for his fiction, some of which was collected into "Taipei People."

Seeking a purer rendition

The 400th-year celebrations of "Peony" in the late 1990s set Pai on a new course. He attended the full-length production staged by Chen Shizheng at the Lincoln Center in New York and was left unsatisfied by the way it had been radically updated for contemporary audiences, as was a three-hour Peter Sellars version produced around the same time. Pai felt the work deserved a purer rendition, adhering to the original dialect, music and dance. Also, he says, "I saw the crisis coming, because the kun masters are in their 60s now, and they need to pass on their skills. It's such a difficult and demanding art."

In 2003, he formed a committee of scholars to cut Tang's script by half, producing a work divided into three evenings of three hours each. He found a theater company in China to work with -- the Suzhou Kun Opera Theater of Jiangsu -- and personally auditioned nearly 50 actors before choosing the two leads, Shen Fengying and Yu Jiuling, both in their 20s. Here Pai adapted to modern times, for those parts are usually reserved for veterans who have paid their dues.

Both Shen and Yu had had four years of kunqu training in addition to four years with the troupe, but Pai thought they needed more and sent Zhang Jiqing, nationally famous for playing the Du Liniang role, and Wang Shiyu, known for his jinsheng (young scholar) roles, to Suzhou to work with the actors. They stayed for a year.

Speaking by phone from Suzhou, both younger actors admit they needed the extra education. "We've all learned the main excerpts from 'The Peony Pavilion,' " says Yu, "but we've never had to perform its entirety. And here we were going to face larger audiences, perform on bigger stages." These days Chinese opera is generally performed in excerpts, with a program made up of highlights from several plays. "Up till then," Shen says, "we never had to be on stage for more than 20 minutes at a time."

In April 2004, the production premiered at the National Theatre in Taipei, Taiwan, then toured to Hong Kong, Macao and other areas of China, often performing on college campuses. Pai targeted younger audiences because, he says, "they're the generation who are disconnected from our cultural traditions, even in Taiwan."

"Peony" tells the story of a sheltered 16-year-old girl, Du Liniang (Shen), who ventures into the garden behind her own home -- a rebellious act, as in those days, well-bred girls were meant to stay indoors. Intoxicated by spring, she falls asleep and dreams of a handsome scholar (Yu), with whom she has an amorous dalliance. "This brief moment is made in heaven," he sings, "pillowed on grass, bedded on flowers."

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