In early days of Kunqu, there was a distinction between a ‘pure singer’ and a ‘performer’. While the former did not act and merely paid attention to singing techniques, the latter referred to the allround Kunqu actor.
Maestro Yu Zhenfei had a solid foundation in Kunqu singing from his father, who was an eminent ‘pure singer’. He also enjoyed a career in the theatre that spanned seven decades. His lifelong dedication to the art form meant he was able to create amazingly convincing personae through characterization. He was therefore exemplary in both singing and acting, and a role model in the genre for generations to come.
This year marks the 110th year of birth of Maestro Yu and the 30th year of partnership between his disciples, Cai Zhengren and Tang Yuen-ha. In celebration, the two Kunqu virtuosi will join hands in presenting masterpieces from their mentor’s prized repertoire. For those who want to see the iconic style of the Yu school that integrates ‘singing, acting and expression’ into one naturally engaging performance, it is definitely an opportunity not to be missed.
A village girl wants to buy some wine at the tavern in the Apricot Flower Village. A cowherd stops her on the way and asks her to compete for quick wit in a ‘duel’ of songs and dances. Both quick-witted, each is a good match for the other, and they enjoy the brief encounter before going their separate ways.
The story is also known as Apricot Flower Village, recorded in the Qing Dynasty manuscript version of the chuanqi novella, Su Wu Herding Sheep. Other sources say this originated from the song-and-dance genre of Shanxi. It is also found in many traditional Chinese Operatic genres such as Clapper Opera (bangzi), Peking Opera and Kunqu Opera. This playlet is considered the ‘initiation’ repertoire for actors training for dan (female) and chou (comic) roles, as they must show an adept mastery of the four basic criteria for music theatre, i.e., singing, delivery of lines, acting and dancing. Professionals in the field all recognize that the initiation repertoires are often the hardest, and that is why famous stars enjoy reprising these works to show the artistry they have garnered.
Cast: Lou Yunxiao, Zhao Wenying
The Chain Scheme is also known as The Chain Scheme of the Femme Fatale at Splendid Clouds Hall, first written as a libretto for the Yuan Dynasty variety showcase theatre called zaju. The later version for chuanqi by Wang Ji of Ming inspired the spin-offs of many playlets in Kunqu Opera involving the despotic power behind the throne Dong Zhuo, his foster son Lu Bu, Wang Yun and the beautiful Diao Chan. The actor in chou role plays centrestage here, and is, by tradition, expected to deliver highly impressive martial art routines that would depict the character’s quick reactions to situations, with sharp wit in his head. He is required to ‘move like the wind, and when still, stay motionless like a bell’.
In this excerpt, the scout Yebushou reports to Lu Bu the formidable size of Cao Cao’s army which is on the way to Dong Zhuo’s command with the intention of removing him from power. He also describes the almost invincible trio Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei.
Cast: Tan Xiao, Zhou Xuefeng
Zhao Chong has come top in the national civil examination and is appointed the Mayor of Baocheng Prefecture. He is also just married, so it seems everything is going his way. While on an inspection tour of the rural districts, his wife Li Guizhi hears groans and cries at night coming from the cell that holds the prisoner waiting for execution. Out of pity, she opens the prison door although she knows it is against the law, only to discover that the prisoner is none other than her father, Li Qi, who has been framed. The story goes back to some time ago when Li Qi, a horse-trader, left home to sell his horses. His second wife made life hell for her stepdaughter Guizhi and stepson, Baotong. The girl and the boy escaped from home, and were adopted by a woman by the name of Liu. When Li Qi returned home and found his children missing, he was furious and demanded the truth out of his wife and her maid. In fear, the maid committed suicide. Yang took the case to court and accused Li of forcing the maid to take her own life when he tried to rape her. She even bribed the judge to make sure that Li would be sentenced to death.
Upon hearing exactly what happened before, Guizhi waits for her husband to return and tells him the whole situation, also pleading him to help. But Zhao is also hands tied, knowing that his wife cannot escape charges because she has opened the prison door without permission, and his father-in-law has already been sentenced to death. He may also be incriminated because of these. Since he himself has suffered a lot of hardship under his stepmother, he sympathises with Guizhi’s plight. Out of pity and love, he drafts a petition on her behalf, and tells her to take it to the High Commissioner to have the case revoked. Guizhi disguises herself as a man servant and cries for justice to be done. The new High Commissioner is none other than Li Baotong, Guizhi’s younger brother. He is so astonished to see her that he pulls her into the rear chamber to reveal his identity. The unknowing Zhao is shocked and fears for the safety of his wife, so he barges into the Mayor’s Office, only to be pulled into the rear chamber by Baotong as well. In the end, Li Qi is acquitted, and father and daughter, sister and younger brother, and the brothers-in-law celebrate a joyful reunion.
A Miraculous Double Reunion is also known as The Daughter of the Horse-trader, and can be found in Peking Opera, Kunqu Opera, Han Opera and Anhui Opera. Drafting the Petition is a showpiece for ‘duets’ performed between the sheng (male role) and dan (female role) actors. However, instead of dramatic twists and turns and high-flung emotions, the actors perform this with humour and warmth. The formulaic elements are toned down, and the acting is more naturalistic. Drafting the Petition was made famous by Maestro Yu Zhenfei. He had injected a lot of his insights into the portrayal of characters to make them uniquely his own. Maestro Yu had given over a thousand performances of this playlet during his life time, and Mei Lanfang and Cheng Yanqiu were two of his favourite partners on the stage. In Three Brought into the Judge’s Chambers and The Reunion, the actor in the xiaosheng (young civil male) role is expected to exhibit his thespian skills to the full: on seeing his wife Guizhi being pulled into the rear hall, Zhao feels so humiliated that he loses his composure totally. He pulls up his sleeves, holds up his fists, and barges into the hall on a rampage. But on seeing the High Commissioner, he realizes his inferiority in rank and panics, and the wind is taken out of his sail. The excerpt requires the actor to clown with flair, and beneath the exasperation and desperation, there should be a funny, lovable appeal.
Cast: Cai Zhengren, Tang Yuen-ha, Lu Yongchang, Zhou Xuefeng
A couple who came from Fengyang are itinerant street entertainers. One day, a rich young man comes along and, seeing that the woman is a slim beauty, begins to make passes at her. The woman cleverly and swiftly thwarts his advances with dancing actions. Her husband intervenes, thoroughly enjoying teasing the rich young man. The latter fails to take advantage of his target in the end.
Beating the Flower Drum is a popular playlet found in many genres of traditional Chinese theatre, such as Peking Opera, Kunqu Opera, Clapper Opera, Han Opera, Hunan Opera, Anhui Opera, Pear Garden Opera, Gaojia Opera etc. It has its origin in a chuanqi novella, The Story of the Red Prunus. It was also featured in the Qing Dynasty opera, Decorating the White Fur Coat. This playlet has been popular since the Qing Dynasty. The performers need to show agility in the body and the legs. They must move fluidly with the beating of the drums and gongs, demonstrating excellent co-ordination of the hands, eyes, torso, spirit and footwork. The dance movements are taken from the traditional ‘Flower Drum Songs’ of Song of Fengyang and Jasmine, and executed in time with the beat and the singing.
Cast: Zhao Wenying, Tan Xiao, Sun Jinghua
The story takes place during the reign of Emperor Wu of Han (r. 141 BCE – 87 BCE). The Xiongnu of the North are invading the Central Plains, and Su Wu is sent as a Peace Envoy by the Emperor. On arriving at the Xiongnu court, he is detained by the Prince who wants him to defect to their side. Su refuses, and is banished to the wilderness in Beihai to tend the sheep. Li Ling is a former general of Han, and used to be Su’s friend. He led an army of five thousand against the Xiongnu’s one hundred thousand. When they were totally wiped out, he could not but surrender to the enemy’s side. When news reached the Han court, the Emperor was furious. When all the courtiers put the blame on Li Ling, Sima Qian spoke on his behalf and was sent to prison because of this. Later, when the Xiongnu prince made Li his son-in-law, the Han Emperor deemed it a treachery and ordered Li’s family to be annihilated. An unwilling defector with no home to return to, Li stays on Xiongnu land.
When Su Wu is sent to herd the sheep, Li Ling is asked by the Prince to go to Beihai to try to persuade him to defect. When the two former friends come face to face, they have such mixed feelings because they realize that they are now enemies. Li hopes to bring him round by inviting Su to a banquet at the Looking Homeward Terrace. There he points out to Su his predicament and forced exile in these painful and heartfelt words, ‘I might be wrong, but Han has also betrayed me’. Su refuses to accept his argument, and shows to him the staff he was given as peace envoy as a testimony of his patriotic heart.
The libretto was originally from Southern Opera repertory written by Anonymous during the Yuan Dynasty. It was later attributed to Ma Zhiyuan during the Ming period. In the Collection of Scores of Hanshan Hallby Zhang Dafu of Qing, there is an entry which seems to confirm this claim. It states that the Southern Opera entitled Su Wu the Patriotic Envoy Herding Sheep in Beihai was ‘written by Ma Zhiyuan, the Provisions Officer of Dadu, Jiangsu-Zhejiang Provinces.’The extant version we see today may be a revised version by a Ming or Qing playwright. This playlet is performed by two actors, one in laosheng (old man) role and the other in guansheng (government official) role. They are expected to give clear delivery of lines and sing with lilting vocal appeal so as to portray the adamant loyalty of Su Wu, and the pitiable predicament of Li Ling.
Cast: Lu Yongchang, Zhou Xuefeng
The story takes place in the Southern Song period (960-1279). Du Liniang is the well-educated daughter of Du Bao, Prefect of Nan’an. One spring day, she takes a stroll in the back garden. On seeing the beautiful spring scene, she cannot help lamenting how fast one’s prime fades. She falls asleep in the garden and dreams of having an amoureuse relationship with a handsome scholar, Liu Mengmei. Du Liniang’s two visits to the back garden (in Waking from a Dream and Looking for Her Dream) lead to her lamentation of the transience of beauty and youth. As she pines for love, she slowly wastes away. One day, she suddenly realizes how unpredictable life is. As she looks at herself in the mirror, she has the urge to draw a self-portrait in order to keep a record of her beauty. She writes an inscription on the portrait, in which she embeds the rebuses of ‘Liu’ (willow) and ‘Mei’ (prunus), in the hope that her lover in the dream would come and consummate their love one day. Liniang falls lovesick in late spring, and dies on the day of the Mid-Autumn Festival. She is buried under the prunus tree in the back garden. Her maid Chunxiang follows her deathbed wish and buries her self-drawn portrait under the rockery in the garden. When Liniang’s father, Prefect Du, is deployed to another city, this former residence is turned into a shrine. The scholar, Liu Mengmei, takes up temporary residence here when he falls sick on his way to the capital to attend the civil examination. As he wanders around the deserted garden, he chances upon Liniang’s portrait. He unfolds it and finds the face look very familiar. He talks to the portrait, and sometimes talks to himself, gradually become so enamoured of her that he is totally beside himself. Enamoured of her beauty, Liu addresses her portrait and invokes her to come out and meet him. Three years after her death, Liniang’s soul is still pining to find the scholar in her dream. While she is officially ‘dead’ by the Death Register in the Netherworld, her body retains its form as if she were still alive. On hearing the invocation of Liu, she appears to meet him, and her dream is fulfilled. Later, with the help of Liu and the Taoist nun Sister Stone, she returns to the world of the living and the two become husband and wife.
The Peony Pavilion is also known as The Return of the Soul, or The Return of the Soul to the Peony Pavilion in full. It was a libretto for chuanqi novella, written by Tang Xianzu (1550-1616) of the Ming Dynasty. The excerpts The Portrait, Finding the Portrait, Calling upon the Picture, The Phantom Union and The Elopement are Scenes 14, 24, 26, 28 and 36 of the original play. In The Portrait, Tang Yuen-ha not only expresses her sadness through the singing, but also highlights her lamentations and fervent hope through painting the portrait and writing the poem on the spot as she sings. Finding the Portrait and Calling upon the Picture is a one-man show for the jinsheng (scholar). The singing, delivery of lines, acting and expressiveness require imagination and insight in order to portray a man ‘falling so deeply in love that he is beside himself’. In this performance, Cai Zhengren follows the interpretations of Maestro Yu Zhenfei when he performed Liu on stage.
Cast: Tang Yuen-ha, Cai Zhengren, Zhao Wenying
Sun Jinghua is a young member of the Shanghai Kunqu Opera Troupe. He completed his training at the Shanghai City Chinese Opera School where he specialized in chou (comic) roles under Wang Shijie and Tu Yongheng. He was later coached by Liu Yilong and Cheng Zhixiong. His stage personae are impish, witty and full of humour. His repertoire includes such traditional operatic excerpts as Wu Song’s Glorious Homecoming, Borrowing Boots, The Singing Session etc.