Chinese Traditional Kunqu opera gains new vitality in new era

Young contestants from Kunshan Huaqiao Central Primary School perform a scene of Chinese Kunqu opera masterpiece “The Peony Pavilion” during a Kunqu contest for children in Suzhou, east China’s Jiangsu province, Sept. 12. (Photo by Hua Xuegen/People’s Daily Online)

Kunshan city in east China’s Jiangsu province, the birthplace of Kunqu opera, known as the mother of Chinese operas, has been taking measures to bring new vitality to the traditional art form.


In the Kunshan Contemporary Kunqu Opera Theater, The Imitator, the first original Kunqu opera work created by a young team at the theater, is put on stage. The performances given by post-90s artists have won applauses.


When a performer sang the beautiful and lingering tune on stage, Sun Renjie, a 14-year-old apprentice, reeled off the spoken parts of a character that coordinate with the singing parts off stage.


“I will graduate from a drama school four years later and I’m very optimistic about the future as Kunqu opera is thriving,” Sun said.


Founded in 2015, the Kunshan Contemporary Kunqu Opera Theater has become an underpinning force for the development of Kunqu opera.


The theater carries out 100 activities in schools, communities and enterprises every year, allowing Kunqu opera actors to interact with citizens, said Qu Qixia, who is in charge of the theater.


Private Kunqu opera troupes are also witnessing rapid growth. Thanks to the expanding Kunqu opera market, the Baihua Troupe in Kunshan, which was established in 2011, has started to make profits, even though it operated at a loss at the beginning.


“We stage over 100 performances in various cities every year as more and more people become fond of Kunqu opera,” said Xu Zhenglong, founder of the troupe.


Traditional Kunqu opera has attracted more young audiences while in the past, most fans were middle-aged and elderly people.


In 1987, Yushan Town No. 1 Primary School in Kunshan established the first Kunqu opera class for children. Over more than 30 years, primary schools in various districts and towns of the city have established similar classes, training more than 5,000 students.


Chen Lingfeng, 13 years old, was one of the students. He entered a drama school after graduating from a primary school.


“Because of my son, all our family members have developed a strong interest in Kunqu opera, and we watch Kunqu opera performances whenever possible,” said his father.


In recent years, Kunshan has made unremitting efforts to protect, inherit and carry forward Kunqu art by launching multiple activities such as holding regular performances on every Friday and introducing the classic art to schools, communities and enterprises in the whole city, an important program to revive the elegant art form.


Vitalizing the traditional opera also requires sufficient investment in facilities. Recent years have witnessed the opening of several high-standard theaters such as the Grand Theater of Kunshan Culture and Art Center, Kunshan Grand Theater, and Kunshan Contemporary Kunqu Opera Theater.


Various stages for performances of the traditional opera and theaters in cultural centers have also been set up in towns of Kunshan including Zhouzhuang, Jinxi, and Bacheng. Kunshan is emerging as a “city of Kunqu opera”.


This year’s Chinese Opera Gala, where operas of over 100 Chinese opera genres were staged, came to a close in Kunshan recently. This is the third consecutive year that the gala has been held in the city. During each year’s gala, artists of Chinese operas gathered in the city.


Chen Peng, honorary chairman of the Dramatists’ Association of Shandong province in east China, has attended the gala for three consecutive years and hailed Kunshan’s better and stronger atmosphere of opera culture.


Feng Huiqing, deputy director of Kunshan Culture, Sports, Radio, Television and Tourism Bureau, said the city has successively rolled out several development plans to promote the integrated development of Kunqu art, economic growth in urban and rural areas, cultural traditions, featured tourism, and urban landscape, and to build itself into a “city of Kunqu opera.”


Besides, Kunshan has allocated 177 million yuan (about $27 million) to encourage the creation of Kunqu opera plays, cultivate and introduce Kunqu talents, and support Kunqu opera organizations and studios. It has put in 5 million yuan and built 30 opera stages in villages, introducing classic art to the countryside.


The city aims to enable citizens to find a stage to learn Kunqu opera and perform in an opera show, Feng added.


Now Kunqu opera is becoming part of people’s everyday lives as they can enjoy performances on stages in both teahouses and theaters in urban and rural areas.

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