Arts & Events

AROUND AND ABOUT THEATER: Rare Performances of Kunqu Chinese Opera

Ken Bullock
Friday April 24, 2015 - 12:00:00 PM

Chinese Opera dates back to our late medieval period--one of the oldest theatrical forms that's been performed without a break ever since its founding. Highly stylized in its vocals, stage movement--sometimes acrobatics and martial arts--and acting styles, it became a touchstone for modern and avant-garde theaters in Europe and America.

(Orson Welles featured Cantonese Opera in his scenes of San Francisco's Chinatown in 'Lady from Shanghai.' Living in Chinatown in the 80s and 90s, I remember hearing on the streets the sounds of Chinese Opera singing and music practiced as I'd walk home from work.)

It's influenced the theater of neighboring societies: Vietnamese Opera, for one; Tibetan is another, its plays based on North Indian theater, its staging from Chinese Opera. And Kabuki was probably influenced by Chinese forms.

In the West, Jesuit translations of Chinese plays into Latin were a feature of the Enlightenment. Bertolt Brecht--Jesuit-educated--read "The Circle of Chalk" and based his late masterpiece, "Caucasian Chalk Circle" on it. He also wrote an essay, sometimes translated as "The Fourth Wall of China," on the relation between Chinese Opera acting and stagecraft and his own concept of Epic Theater.

Brecht first encountered Chinese Opera in Moscow, where V. S. Meyerhold brought Mei Lanfang's famous troupe in 1935. Mei was a great Jingju ("Peking") Opera "diva" who traveled the world, a male actor specializing in female roles, some of whose ancestors were practitioners of the ancient style of Kunqu Opera, a predecessor to Peking Opera, which influenced it. Founded during the Ming Dynasty, it dominated theater in China from the 16th through the 18th centuries. Mei became a legendary figure in International theater, hailed by Chaplin among others.

After declining during the early 20th century and suppression during the Cultural Revolution, Kunqu Opera came close to dying out. But there's been a resurgence--and UNICEF designated it a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2001.

Now a celebrated troupe, Suzhou Kunqu Opera, has arrived in the Bay Area from Mainland China, only their second time here, and will give two performances of scenes from the classic "The Peony Pavilion" on Sunday and Tuesday evenings. 

The actors are highly skilled, often virtuosi, combining mime, acting and singing, with instrumental accompaniment, Kunqu Opera being famous for its music. 

There's a sample on YouTube from one of the scenes with different actors: 


They're presented by local producer Chinese Ticket Box, with the Consulate General of the People's Republic of China in support. 

Shows at 7 on Sunday at Koshland Theater, Palo Alto JCC, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto and Tuesday at 7:30 at the Music Recital Hall, Santa Clara University, 952 Franklin, Santa Clara. 

Tickets: $45; $65 VIP. (510) 796-9988; --click on "English," upper right, then on the show dates