IAS Senior Fellow brings to life Kunqu opera
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More than 500 people were taken on a journey into the world of Kunqu by Professor Pai Hsien-yung, a renowned writer and Kunqu expert, in a talk at City University of Hong Kong (CityU) on 9 March.
Professor Pai is the first Senior Fellow in Humanities at CityU’s Institute for Advanced Study (IAS). His talk, titled “The emotion and beauty of Kunqu”, was part of the IAS Distinguished Lecture Series.
In the talk, Professor Pai discussed in detail the special features of Kunqu opera. He said Kunqu featured beautiful lyrics, accurate and eloquent dancing, and melancholy music. On top of that, its universal theme of love could easily arouse an audience’s emotions, which is why Kunqu has been enjoyed in Chinese theatre for more than 200 years.
Professor Pai’s explanations rendered the seemingly intangible Kunqu culture much more accessible while young male and female actors from the Suzhou Kunqu Opera Theatre in Jiangsu Province dramatically performed six excerpts from Kunqu opera classics, including the “Interruption of a Dream” from The Peony Pavilion, “Dating” from The Romance of the Western Chamber, and “Autumn River” from The Story of the Jade Hairpin.
In between performances, Professor Pai commented on the operas, pointing out that modern Kunqu required artists to possess a distinct appearance, athletic agility and special visual effects as a means to attract young viewers.
“Kunqu is a performance art with a high level of difficulty,” he said. “Since there has been a gap in the development of Kunqu, we need to push youngsters to become top performers. Also, we need to introduce the opera to students so that the younger generation can learn about it and appreciate its art.”
Professor Pai was involved in a youth production of The Peony Pavilion, which has notched up more than 200 shows in Asia, Europe and the US. The new version of The Story of the Jade Hairpin has also earned critical acclaim.
The talk was enlightening but also amusing. The speaker recalled a major challenge in 2002 when he gave a talk on Kunqu to more than 1,000 secondary school students at Sha Tin Town Hall.
“I have taught in university for more than 20 years, but I had never taught secondary school students, and in Cantonese. It was the biggest challenge in my teaching career!” he said.
This experience gave him the idea of introducing Kunqu using live demonstrations for secondary school students, which in turn inspired his youth production of The Peony Pavilion.
Professor Jacob Huang Chih-ching, Executive Director of IAS and Chair Professor of Materials Science, attributed the success of the lecture to Professor Pai being a world-renowned Chinese writer, and Suzhou Kunqu Opera Theatre of Jiangsu Province for being a unique Kunqu troupe in China.
Professor Pai received his Master of Arts degree from the University of Iowa and taught Chinese language and literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara. After retirement, he served as a “Kunqu volunteer” and started to actively promote Kunqu by creating the “new Kunqu aesthetic”.
His work has helped to nurture a new generation of performers and audiences, and he said he was grateful to CityU for supporting the promotion of Kunqu culture as well as traditional Chinese art.