AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 243

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Session 243: “Traditional” Chinese Theater on the Modern Stage -Sponsored by CHINOPERL

Organizer: Peng Xu, Virginia Military Institute, USA

Chair: Andrea S. Goldman, University of California, Los Angeles, USA

Discussants: Catherine Swatek, University of British Columbia, Canada; Joseph S. C. Lam, University of Michigan, USA

Since 1999, international tours of sumptuous kunqu (Kun opera) stage productions, boasting the involvement of well-known artists from cinema, theater, and fashion, have seemed to herald the revival of traditional Chinese theater. Pop versions of kunqu (such as the “Young Lovers’ Version” of The Peony Pavilion) have been emulated widely by professional troupes, situating kunqu at the forefront of creative experimentation in contemporary Chinese theater. As a result, kunqu is now challenging the leading role that jingju (Peking/Beijing opera) has played as China’s “national drama” since the Republican era. Without imposing value judgments on the innovations of recent kunqu and jingju productions, this panel offers historical context for recent developments in these two art forms as they face new impetuses and challenges. At the same time, we also attempt to shed light on the identity and boundaries of the “traditional” aspect of Chinese theater. How have these art forms been tailored to meet the expectations of imagined modern audiences? Can recent innovation in kunqu theater be traced to previous jingju reform? Examining the creative processes of eight jingju productions, Elizabeth Wichmann-Walczak investigates the dynamics of three decades of jingju creation. Judith Zeitlin explores the simultaneous rise of grand and miniature kunqu productions and their corresponding venues. Then, shifting the focus to a single, recent kunqu production, Sara Kile examines the significance of the unprecedented portrayal of female love on the kunqu stage in 2010. Xu Peng analyzes some breakthroughs of the same production in successfully adapting cinematic techniques for theater.

In Search of "Shidai Gan": Three Decades of Experiments in Making Jingju “Relevant for the Times”
Elizabeth Wichmann-Walczak, University of Hawaii, Manoa, USA

Since the early 1980s, media in China have widely discussed the shrinking and aging of audiences for jingju (Beijing/Peking “opera”), attributing these circumstances in part to jingju’s lack of a “feeling of the times (shidai gan)” and characterizing jingju as slow, repetitive, backward, and generally un-modern. As a result, jingju companies have often attempted to modernize traditional elements and/or incorporate new elements into productions of both new and traditional plays. In the search for that “feeling of the times,” elements from both popular/low and high culture, from other performance traditions in and outside China, as well as from other media and earlier, twentieth-century “xiqu (Chinese traditional music drama) reform” movements have found their way onto the jingju stage. This paper examines the creative processes and products of eight jingju productions created in Nanjing and Shanghai in the last three decades: Tears of the Pipa (Pipa Lei, 1979), A Pig Butcher Places First in the National Examination (Tufu Zhuangyuan, 1981), Liu Laolao and Wang Xifeng (1987), Cao Cao and Yang Xiu (1988), The Leopard Cat- Crown Prince Exchange (Limao Huan Taizi, 1995), Dream of the King of Qi (Qi Wang Meng, 1996), and Mei Lanfang (2004). By focusing on the unique, multi-dimensional hybridity and intertextuality found in these productions and charting the continuities and discontinuities of approach and execution over time, this paper explores the changing dynamics of jingju creation in the face of often mutually-contradictory theatrical policy and market forces, and offers some prognostications for the coming decades.

“Mega” versus “Mini”: Two Recent Trends in Chinese Opera Stage Productions
Judith T. Zeitlin, University of Chicago, USA

Over the past dozen years, “traditional” opera in PRC cities has been undergoing a period of creative experimentation, with the construction of new theaters and renovation of historical spaces. My paper examines two recent trends in the stage production of old operas, which are related to the opportunities and limitations of these new venues. The first trend is what I call the “mega” production. The aim is to surpass previous stagings of an opera in length (multiple nights), in the imaginativeness of the spectacle (with a budget to match), and in the size of the cast and orchestra. “Mega” productions are ideal for grand new opera houses (exemplified by the Grand National Theater in Beijing). The “mini” production, on the other hand, seeks to recreate an intimate relationship with its audience and pares down the size of the cast and orchestra to achieve a minimalist effect in a small venue while still pursuing high-quality production values. Both “mega” and “mini” productions tend to justify their respective strategies in terms of historical authenticity. My paper will focus on two notable “mega” productions, Bai Xianyong’s The Peony Pavilion: Young Lovers’ Edition and the Shanghai Kun Opera Company’s four-night staging of the complete Palace of Lasting Life. I will then examine two innovative developments in “mini” stagings: performances from the traditional kunqu repertoire at a new state-of-the-art chamber theater in the Suzhou Kun Opera Museum, and a long-running commercial production of The Peony Pavilion staged in the old Imperial Granary in Beijing.

Curiously Relevant: Same-sex Love on the Kunqu Stage in Women in Love (Lianxiangban)
S. E. Kile, University of Michigan, USA

In May 2010, when kunqu (Kun opera) had been receiving significant government support for most of a decade and was enjoying more popularity than it had since the nineteenth century, an unprecedented kunqu production of Women in Love (Lianxiangban) was staged at Beijing’s Poly Theater. Women in Love, a southern drama (chuanqi) penned by the maverick seventeenth-century literatus, Li Yu, tells the story of a newly married woman, Cui Jianyun, who falls in love with a young beauty, Cao Yuhua, while visiting a temple. After many twists of plot, Cui realizes her plan to bring Cao into her household by marriage, and the three live happily ever after. The crew behind this production includes kunqu director and actor Wang Shiyu, openly gay Hong Kong film director Stanley Kwan (Guan Jiepeng), and sociologist and public intellectual Li Yinhe, well-known in China for her work on homosexuality. Media have made much of the fact that not only is this the first kunqu performance of Women in Love in whole or part since it was written 350 years ago, but also that the play is evidence of traditional China’s tolerance of same-sex love, and the space for such relationships within the traditional polygynous household. By situating both this production and Li Yu’s original script in their cultural and historical contexts, most importantly the discourse of homosexuality, but also that of popular entertainment, this paper will explore how meaning is made of female same-sex love on the kunqu stage, then and now.

Staging Cinematic Moments: A Case Study of the Longing Scene in the Kunqu Production Women in Love (Lianxiangban, 2010)
Peng Xu, Virginia Military Institute, USA

In the living repertoire of Chinese opera, longing scenes – in which two separated lovers appear concurrently on stage and sing about their yearning – are rare; in contrast, cinema can readily handle such scenes by combining shots of each actor into a sequence, as we see in opera films made in the post-1949 era. To replicate the effect of film editing on stage, or to re-create what I call “cinematic moments”, lighting techniques and realistic stage settings started to appear to define distanced spaces where each actor is located; arias were broken into small pieces to be sung in turn by “separated” actors. Scenes of longing only existed ephemerally as experimental pieces in either earlier stage versions or film adaptations, but were later abandoned in actual theatrical performance. In this light, the recent kunqu production Women in Love (Lianxiangban, premiere May 2010, Beijing) stands out as a breakthrough example. In a longing scene, it convincingly represents the simultaneous existence of two lovers in different locales, each unaware of the other’s existence, each deaf to the other’s singing. By comparing it with earlier examples ranging from the 1920s reform of Mei Lanfang to opera films of the 1960s, this paper analyzes how Women in Love offers the audience an unprecedented cinematic experience in theater, and how it breaks through the conventional spatial frame of stage and blurs the boundaries of the two media. Furthermore, it also offers a preliminary reflection on the limits of the “tradition” of Chinese theater.