Yu Jiulin as Liu Mengmei and Tang Hong as Judge Hu Photo: The Suzhou Kun Opera Theater 2006
While New Yorkers were busy last week debating whether or not Peter Gelb would spoil the decaying stench inside the Met by daring to let in the smallest amount of light and air from the outside (a puppet?!, how could they?
), we out West were feasting on some real wonders.
Most notable was the 9-hour adaptation of Tang Xianzu’s The Peony Pavilion
presented by The Suzhou Kun Opera Theater of Jiangsu Province who have been on a West Coast tour for the last month or so. This production has been featured in association with many of the UC Campuses and, following stops in Berkeley
, arrived in LA before moving on to Santa Barbara next week.
The performance was long, marred by amplification problems, and was a radical cut of nearly half of the original production. It was a minimalist staging with sparse sets and was very uneven in parts. That said, it was also amazing and perhaps the most moving and beautiful thing I've seen in a long time. It was like hearing Verdi or Puccini for the first time and discovering a whole unknown world of beauty. For three nights, I felt I had discovered opera for myself all over again. Special mention should be made of the two leads Yu Jiulin and Shen Fengying who not only had to sing and act but learn a great deal of choreography as well.
Yu Jiulin as Liu Mengmei and Shen Fengying as Du Liniang Photo: The Suzhou Kun Opera Theater 2006
Admittedly some of the excitement may come from the comperative rarity of a Kun Opera production. Two different and more complete productions of this work were staged in the late 90s - one by Chen Shi-Zheng at the 1999 Lincoln Center Festival and another by Peter Sellars with a new score from Tan Dun around the same time. However, as the Chinese couple behind me noted during these performances, even in China they had never seen more than 15 to 20 minutes of the piece performed at any one time. It makes me wonder how such an amazing work can be so ignored, even here in the West. Is it really any more esoteric or difficult to access than Montiverdi or Mozart? Is Mandarin that much more of a foreign language to most American opera goers than German or Russian?
I suspect that the issue in large part is that American culture has developed with a largely European influence, which is reflected in its tastes for opera. However, considering how different opera is in Europe these days from its appearance in the US, the issue may actually be that Americans crave a fantasy of Europe and European culture that no longer exists. American opera houses are filled with stale productions meant to recapture this idea of a long-gone Europe that even the Europeans are no longer interested in maintaining. Oh sure, we can blame the changes there on "revisionist directors" but that's a lot like blaming American society's ills on "activist judges." Maybe we should stop looking for scapegoats for opera's decline in the last half-century and start concentrating on opening up the boundaries of the repetoire to musical theater from the rest of the world.