function get_footer() { echo "test"; } September 12, 2006

Published on Tuesdays



A Guide to the
Bay Area's Classical
Music Scene
Sept. 12 – 25

By Lisa Hirsch, Mary VanClay,
Mickey Butts, Scott MacClelland, and Jeff Dunn



» Melody Moore's Marvelous Moment ...
» Who's In, Who's Out
at Kohl Mansion ...
» Where in the World
Is Kent Nagano? ...
» Up and Coming,
the Lyric Way ...

And More

By Janos Gereben



In Top Form

By Michael Zwiebach

Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra
Dominique Labelle
Christine Brandes
William Berger
Nicholas McGegan
September 9, 2006


Having a Ball ... or Two

By Janos Gereben

San Francisco Opera
A Masked Ball
Die Fledermaus
September 8-9, 2006


A Return to Excellence

By Robert C. Commanday

San Francisco Symphony Opening Gala
Christian Tetzlaff
Michael Tilson Thomas
September 6, 2006


A Refreshing Tribute

By Michael Zwiebach

Pacific Collegium
Pacific Boychoir
Amici Catellorum
Impromptu Philharmonic
Tonia D'Amelio
Joseph Wright
Christopher Kula
September 9, 2006


If Only ...

By Jeff Dunn

Kronos Quartet
September 11, 2006


The English Have Arrived

By Anna Carol Dudley

Choir of Gonville and
Caius College
September 9-10, 2006


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An Ancient Art Revived

By Lisa Houston

For anyone with even a remote interest in Chinese opera, the culture of China, or the art of theater, the arrival of The Peony Pavilion at UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall this Friday, Sept. 15, is an event to be eagerly anticipated. The opera will be performed over nine hours on Friday and Saturday evenings and on Sunday afternoon. It seems that the sleeping giant is waking, and singing, as the University's China Initiative collaborates to bring this production to the Bay Area.

The Peony Pavilion is considered by many to be the masterpiece of kunqu (pronounced kwun-chyu). It has survived political repression and censorship to make its way in a new production by the Suzhou Kun Opera Theatre of Jiangsu, helped in large part by the form's greatest champion, Kenneth Pai, Taiwanese author and retired UC Santa Barbara professor of Chinese literature. Professor Pai has produced and written what he calls The Peony Pavilion: The Young Lovers' Edition.

Breaking with a tradition of casting older actors, he chose young actors Yu Jiuling and Shen Fengying to portray the teenaged lovers. The two began their four years of training at Suzhou kunqu academy at the age of 16. After being chosen for their roles in this production, they underwent more than a year of training to be able to embody these classic characters. Working from early morning into the evening, they trained with Chang Ji-ching and Wang Shi-yu, masters of the art. Rumor has it that training was so rigorous that Yu Jiuling broke a knee during one rehearsal.

Actors Yu Jiuling and Shen Fengying

The history of this opera is also rich in lore. Because of its unusually explicit sexual themes, women were said to have fainted while viewing its early performances, and one actress is said to have expired, on stage, upon concluding the main character's dying aria.

Americans have some catching up to do to appreciate this highly refined dramatic form, and UC Berkeley aims to help by offering a weekend symposium that will include lectures, demonstrations, and even a master class on the ancient art of kunqu, the "mother" or "teacher" of Chinese opera and the oldest extant version of the form. Most of the symposium events are free and open to the public.

Professor Pai is counting on the fact that there is much within kunqu that has universal appeal. A brief look at the contents of the melodic form and of this particular story, which celebrates individual choice and passionate love, seems to back up his belief.

What's the same ...

The drama makes use of different role types, although the stock characters are not as specific as in commedia dell'arte. Each role has its own vocal technique and style of movement. Musically, there are some profound differences between kunqu and Western tonality, but also some points of commonality that serve as entryways for the Western ear. Kunqu uses both the pentatonic (five notes per octave) major scale and the heptatonic (seven notes per octave) scale. In Western classical music, the fourth and seventh steps of the scale are sometimes called leading tones because of the way they push the melody to the important notes of the fifth and the tonic, helping move toward resolution.

Harmony also supports this musical direction. In kunqu, however, the music is written in unison and, according to Professor Mark, the fourth and seventh steps of the scale are used sparingly. This is why, at first, the Western listener may not follow or feel connected to the music. However, the pentatonic major scale is a basic tool of the music education system devised by composer and educator Carl Orff, and many kinds of folk music use the scale (including such well-known songs as Amazing Grace and Auld Lang Syne). So there can be a level of familiarity or basic affinity with the music of kunqu for Western listeners.

The costumes are perhaps most easily appreciated. They are handmade and embroidered in the traditional manner for this production, and are an integral part of the drama. Long sleeves that extend well beyond the hands are called "water sleeves." In the lovers' first meeting in this production, their sleeves entwine to depict their erotic and emotional connection.

Broad themes in the story's plot will certainly be familiar to Western audiences. Written by the poet Tang Xianzu (1550-1616), a contemporary of Shakespeare, The Peony Pavilion is a story of love's triumph over seemingly impossible adversity. The current version contains 27 scenes (the original has 55). The author was a former official whose retirement may have been a form of protest against Daoxue, the strict Neo-Confucianism of his time that stressed rigid outward propriety.

The tale is remarkable for the passion and independence of its female protagonist, a young woman living in a time when arranged marriages were the norm and a woman's subservience was to be expected. The love story is further eroticized by the use of dream states and supernatural meetings that elevate the lovers' passion to fantastical dimensions. Like Romeo and Juliet, the plot involves passionate young lovers, committed to one another in the face of a conflicting, externally imposed social reality. The two lovers are Du Liniang and Liu Mengmei. Not only does their love survive death, their first meeting actually occurs after the young woman's death. Before that, the two meet only in a dream. Then Du Liniang, the daughter of a high-ranking official, dies. Liu Mengmei, however, has fallen in love with her portrait.

Meanwhile the judge of the underworld, stunned by Du Liniang's beauty and touched by the knowledge that she and Liu Mengmei are predestined to be married, allows Du Liniang to return to the mortal realm. She appears to her beloved as a ghost for another love scene, after which Liu Mengmei uncovers her grave and Du Liniang returns to life.

The judge of the underworld grants a reprieve

The two elope and eventually persuade Du Liniang's strict father that she is truly alive and is not an evil spirit, and love triumphs. Given the two lovers siding against a strict family, the hero's wish to retrieve his beloved from the underworld, and the hero's falling in love with the portrait of the heroine, one might say that the production is Romeo and Juliet meets Orfeo and Euridice meets The Magic Flute.

... and what's different

Kunqu is considered to be the most highly refined and literary form of xiqu (pronounced hsi-chu), the Chinese operatic theater tradition. Kunqu dates from the 16th century, thriving into the Qing Dynasty (overthrown in 1912), and predating the more widely known and popular Beijing opera, which includes Peking and Cantonese opera. The broader art form of Chinese opera dates back to the eighth century, during the Tang Dynasty. Emperor Xuanzong (712-755) founded China's first-known opera troupe and musical academy, called Liyuan, or "The Pear Garden," which is why operatic performers are called "Disciples of the Pear Garden."

Perhaps buoyed by UNESCO's 2001 proclamation that kunqu is a "masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity," kunqu has begun to flourish again. Seven cities in China produce professional performances. However, even prior to that pronouncement, avant-garde opera director Peter Sellars staged a nontraditional version of The Peony Pavilion in 1998, and Chinese-American director Chen Shizheng produced a version in New York in 1999.

Kunqu includes singing, recitation, stylized gestures, and elaborate choreography; its repertory was developed collaboratively by poets, scholars, artists, and musicians during its first 200 years. It is performed in a stage language that includes modified Mandarin along with some aspects of the dialect of the region in which it originated, Kunshan. Beijing opera uses fewer, less complex melodies and primarily accompanies the voice with the jing-hu (a stringed instrument), while in kunqu the voice is most often accompanied by the bamboo flute. More substantively, Beijing opera tends to deal with historical or larger cultural events and kunqu more with human drama and relationships. Beijing opera also is much more significantly acrobatic, with incidental dances (an addition made to the state-sanctioned form perhaps because acrobatics are less politically provocative than poetry).

Kunqu deals with human relationships
rather than historical topics

Because the language is tonal — specific syllables have specific pitch values — and the number of lines and syllables must conform strictly to the structure of existing melodies, the writing of a kunqu text requires great skill and linguistic expertise. For that reason, kunqu librettists are, traditionally, poets and the texts themselves are highly valued for literary merit. (The same cannot be said of The Barber of Seville.) Kunqu performances alternate between arias accompanied by orchestra and the recitation of poems.

The six- to 10-piece kunqu orchestra is traditionally located on the side of the stage. For this Peony production, there are 20 orchestral musicians playing string and wind instruments and percussion. The drummer serves as a sort of conductor, although the musicians also watch the actors for cues. According to Professor Lindy Li Mark, professor emerita of anthropology at California State University East Bay, and the translator of this production's supertitles into English, the bamboo flute that "accompanies" the vocal line actually leads the voice, and its melodies are a bit more florid and embellished.

Actors train in this style in any of the schools connected with the six professional kunqu companies in China today. There is also a company in New York City and one in Taiwan. Professor Mark explains the educational process this way: "Actors are recruited between the ages of 12 and 14. In addition to regular schooling, they are trained in physical movement and voice together, so that they get used to singing while in motion — which includes gymnastics."

Keeping kunqu alive

The survival of this art form is itself a remarkable story of resurrection and rebirth and owes a great deal in recent years to the dedication and passion of Professor Pai. First smitten with the art of kunqu as a child, Pai has produced The Peony Pavilion in an effort to keep the art alive and bring it to younger audiences unfamiliar with its tradition.

During the Cultural Revolution, most opera troupes were shut down and performers and other artists persecuted. The only performances of opera during this time were the state-sanctioned "Eight Model Plays" in the style of Beijing opera, which originated in its current form in the middle of the 19th century. Actors trained in kunqu, meanwhile, were often sent to work in rural areas. In order to retain their memory, according to Pai, they would sing out the melodies and recitations when no one was around to punish their act of dissidence.

Scholar and producer Kenneth Pai

Adding weight to the production is UC Berkeley's China Initiative. This far-reaching project involves research in Chinese law, health, language, energy, and other areas. The initiative's goals include strengthening Berkeley's role in the study of China, as well as building partnerships with educational institutions and other organizations within China, in the hope of educating the public and helping influence the future in these various disciplines. In a similar collaboration, the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan will be in Berkeley Oct. 20-21.

Since it was created in 2004, this Peony production has been a smash hit in Taipei and many cities in China. Tickets at Zellerbach have been selling well. Professor Mark acknowledges that kunqu is subject to some of the same challenges as comparable Western forms. "Since kunqu was recognized by UNESCO, the government is giving more support to some troupes, but not getting the desired results. Since this production is so successful, there are many imitators, but none seem to have succeeded. There has always been recognition of this art form. But, like Western opera, it is a sophisticated, elite form and [may] never draw crowds like the Grateful Dead. One can only hope."

It is difficult to predict whether China's political climate will shift enough to offer this and other art forms the continuity of tradition and freedom of expression they need to flourish again. Whether a Western audience can be moved by this production or by kunqu in general is also to be determined. But lack of familiarity with the language or form is not necessarily an insurmountable obstacle to enjoyment, as any opera neophyte who has cried at La Bohème, without understanding a single word of Italian, will tell you.

Certainly the rich and elaborate traditions of music, movement, and voice; the serious dedication and training these artists demonstrate; and the many commonalities of dramatic theme and musical ingredients make it likely that an investment of a few hours by any Bay Area music and theater lover would be time well spent. The time to learn more about China, its people, and art has arrived.

(Lisa Houston is a mezzo-soprano from Berkeley, where she teaches voice. She will perform as a soloist in the upcoming season with Golden Gate Opera, Pacific Repertory Opera, and the Kensington Symphony. Her Web site is at


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©2006 Lisa Houston, all rights reserved.


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From September 1, 1998, to Sept. 12, 2006, SFCV has published, in addition to our weekly features, Music News, and Listening Ahead columns, 2,503 reviews of Bay Area performances by: 53 symphony orchestras (521 reviews), dozens of recital presenters (433 reviews), 41 opera companies (350 reviews), 94 chamber groups (296 reviews), 38 new-music ensembles and programs (265 reviews), 53 early-music ensembles (198 reviews), 37 choral groups (158 reviews), 17 music festivals (119 reviews), 24 chamber orchestras (97 reviews), six musical theater groups (17 reviews), as well as numerous world music groups (14 reviews), youth music ensembles (13 reviews), and other organizations (13 reviews).


Mickey Butts, Executive Director, Editor, and Publisher
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Associate Editors
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