Inspirazione! : Disciples of the Pear Garden: Notes from a Chinese Opera

One of the benefits of living in or near a college town is the opportunity for continuing education. Recently, I soaked up all I could about a form of Chinese opera called Kunqu (pronounced kwun-chyu) when the University of California Berkeley welcomed a production of a Chinese opera called The Peony Pavilion, presented by the Suzhou Kun Opera Theatre of Jiangsu. Here is what I took away from this enjoyable weekend of lectures, masterclasses, and performance.

Kunqu is the oldest extant version of Chinese opera, also known as the “mother” or “teacher” of Chinese opera. It predates the more widely known and popular Beijing opera, which includes Peking and Cantonese opera, and thrived from the Ming Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty (1570-1800). Many years earlier, Emperor Xuanzong (712-755) founded the first known opera troupe and musical academy in China, called Liyuan (The Pear Garden), which is why operatic performers are called “Disciples of the Pear Garden.”

Many consider The Peony Pavilion the masterpiece of Kunqu. Written by the poet Tang Xianzu (1550-1616), a contemporary of Shakespeare, it is a story of love’s triumph over seemingly impossible adversity. You might say that it is Romeo and Juliet (two lovers siding against a strict family) meets Orfeo and Euridice (the hero’s wish to retrieve his beloved from the underworld) meets The Magic Flute (in which the hero falls in love with the heroine’s portrait).

Despite these similarities to western opera, the differences between the forms are worth noting. The biggest hurdle a western opera lover might encounter in appreciating Chinese opera may be the lack of predominance of the vocal line. The voice is accompanied in unison by a bamboo flute. The flute actually leads the voice, and its melodies are a bit more florid and embellished. Chinese is tonal—specific syllables have specific pitch values—so the vocal range is more limited. The orchestra is traditionally between six and 10 string, wind, and percussion instruments, with the drummer serving as a sort of conductor, though the musicians also watch the actors for cues.

The drama makes use of different role types, though not specific stock characters as in commedia dell’arte. Each role has its own vocal technique and style of movement.

For vocal training, the actors are taught movement and voice together, because that is what will be asked of them as performers. Kunqu uses both the five-note pentatonic scale and seven-note heptatonic scale. Add to that the continuous blending of voice and gesture, and you have an experience that is very different from western opera.

With that understanding, and having never seen or heard a Chinese opera, I was a bit unsure about how or if this form would resonate with me.

On Saturday, the movement and vocal directors of this production, Wang Shiyu and Zhang Jiqing, gave a masterclass. It took only a few moments watching Mr. Wang’s masterful storytelling to feel the differences between our cultures melt away. He demonstrated the nuances of the down-and-out male student, showing how someone with old shoes walks differently from someone with new shoes, how a person from a noble family thrown into poverty might hold the shame in his body, and how the focus of the eyes can reveal any emotion. He quickly had the audience nodding, sighing, and laughing at our shared humanity.

Ms. Zhang then demonstrated the cooing voice, tilted head, and exaggeratedly delicate hands of the “young lady,” one of the five subtypes of the female characters of Kunqu. Some of her instruction sounded quite familiar.

“The waist must be tight, but the muscles of the neck must be loose, relaxed.” She went on to say: “The shape of the hand is essential onstage. This (she demonstrated) suggests a blooming orchid. This is to express cold weather. This shows scorn.”

If any of this seems superficial or overly stylistic, consider Mr. Wang’s further explanation: “As a performer, transformation of our bodies is the quintessential thing. Understanding the character is not enough. You must transform and re-create your body. Without extremely hard and strenuous training, this can never, ever, be achieved.”

Beyond the physical and artistic challenges, Chinese performers have shown incredible courage in preserving this art form through many periods of political oppression. During the Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1976), for example, 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. During this time, actors who were trained in Kunqu, along with other artists and intellectuals, were sent to work in rural areas. To retain their Kunqu memories, they would sing out the melodies and recitations when no one was around to punish their act of dissidence.

As for the performance itself, in all my years of going to the theater, I do not think any performance—whether opera, ballet, or theater—has surpassed this one in terms of synergy and completeness. At one moment, for example, the “young lady,” what we would call the ingenue, enters. The stringed instrument plays a high tremolo. She enters slowly from upstage right. Her head is slightly tilted, as the master demonstrated earlier in the day. Her hand-embroidered costume of white satin sparkles against the neutral backdrop. Her sleeves (which extend two feet past her hands and are called “water sleeves”) drift alongside her.

For a moment, she makes no sound at all. It is difficult to put the effect of her entrance into words, but at that moment she became more than a character. She truly was a radiant embodiment of beauty and innocence, moving beyond the individual or culturally specific to a portrayal of the archetypal female.

It was unlike any moment I have experienced as an audience member. I marveled throughout the evening at the unparalleled stagecraft, whether at the moving aria of the young man, the fiery gymnastics, which my friend suggested are the Chinese equivalent of coloratura, or the way the performers negotiated their water sleeves at will to reveal their delicate hands, pick something up, or to serve as dramatic and flowing extensions of their gestures. Again and again, I found myself thinking: “Wow! I’ve never seen that before!” I also laughed at the antics of the broadly drawn villains, just as I would at any buffo character.

In 2001, UNESCO proclaimed Kunqu a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.” But this weekend reminded me that when artists are dedicated to the full realization of their craft, tradition can indeed be made tangible.

Because it is a new year, I am including a resolution to get out and see what the rest of the world’s arts have to offer more often. I want to open myself to wisdom beyond that of my own western musical heritage, and find inspiration where I might not expect it, with the hope of strengthening my own artistic sensibilities as well as my sense of connection to people from other cultures on this increasingly small planet.

Tip For the Month

Kunqu master Wang Shiyu emphasizes the importance of the eyes onstage. The eyes, he says, show the spirit, and can show any emotion. Also, a lack of focus in the eyes can show that someone has lost their spirit, is drunk, exhausted, or in despair. Wang tells of an old master who trained his eyes by watching flocks of geese, by following a ping-pong ball back and forth, and even staring at the sun. (Don’t try this at home!) He says the master would turn off the lights in a closed room, and have the student follow the tip of a burning incense stick as he moved it in circles. Simply moving the eyes by focusing left, right, up and down is helpful. Two minutes a day of this training, he says, will do you a world of good.

Lisa Houston

Lisa Houston is a writer and dramatic soprano who divides her time between Berlin and Berkeley. She recently performed Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and the title role in The Last Diva on Broadway with the Leipzig Kammeroper. She can be reached at