PEONY PAVILION OPERA COMES TO THE MET
I had just returned to New York City from a fall in Shanghai when I was mentally transported back. I was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue, watching The Peony Pavilion, a 16th century Kunqu opera masterpiece.
The opera was performed in conjunction with the Met’s special exhibition, Chinese Gardens: Pavilions, Studios, Retreats, on display through January 6, 2013.
I first learned about this New York production from Shirley Young, Chair of the US-China Cultural Institute (USCCI), which co-produced the Met performance. Shirley and I were part of a group that attended composer Tan Dun’s staging of The Peony Pavilion in a garden in the ancient water town Zhujiajiao, about an hour’s drive from Shanghai.
COMPOSER TAN DUN
World-famous Oscar-winning composer Tan Dun, who divides his time between Shanghai and New York, had brought his production of this classical opera to the Met’s Astor Court Chinese Scholar Garden.
Dun’s work spans both Eastern and Western styles. His credits include the Oscar-winning scores for Ang Lee’s film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Zhang Yimou’s Hero; music for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and Shanghai 2010 Expo; and the operas Marco Polo and The First Emperor, performed in 2006 at the Metropolitan Opera with tenor Placido Domingo.
Kunqu is one of the oldest forms of traditional Chinese theater. The elite opera style was first developed during the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) in southeastern China. Though it has largely fallen out of favor, there has been a recent movement to keep it alive.
The Peony Pavilion, written in 1598 by the celebrated Chinese writer Tang Xianzu, is a love story. It is the Eastern equivalent of Romeo and Juliet, which Shakespeare wrote at about the same time.
In order to broaden its appeal, Dun has made changes to the opera. In its original form, the story consisted of fifty-five acts that take more than twenty hours to perform over several days. Dun condensed it into a seventy-minute version with four parts.
THE LOVE STORY
In the love story, 16-year-old heroine Du Liniang (played by Zhang Ran) falls asleep in the peony pavilion in her family’s garden on a spring day. She dreams of a young scholar named Liu Mengmei (played by Zhang Jun), whom she’s never met in real life, and falls in love.
I was amused when the teenager sang, “My hair is dressed for a bride, but where is the bridegroom? I’m wasting the prime of my life.” (Young women are still singing those words today!)
As the story unfolds, Liniang dies of a broken heart from unrequited longing and descends into the afterlife. But before her death, she had painted a picture of herself and hidden it in the garden. After Mengmei finds the painting and falls in love with her, Liniang appears in his dreams and the story continues.
Liniang has a happier fate than Juliet, though: She comes back to life, finds her dream man, and love conquers all.
The male lead, Zhang Jun, known as “the Prince of Kunqu,” is considered one of China’s most respected Kunqu performers. In an attempt to keep the culture of Kunqu alive, he founded the Zhang Jun Kunqu Art Center in Shanghai. He was later named a UNESCO Artist for Peace for his work in promoting the art form.
The performers wore gorgeous long, flowing Chinese gowns with embroidered peonies (pink for her, blue for him). They twirled about and made sweeping arm and hand gestures, their movements accentuated by the billowing of the long silk sleeves.
One of the reasons I enjoy China and its culture is that it offers so much visual beauty. This stage setting, the extravagant makeup, and the vivid colors are a prime example.
Although only 50 guests were able to enjoy the opera in the Astor Court because of its small size, a larger gathering was treated to a high-definition simulcast in the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium.
A CONVERSATION WITH TAN DUN
In conjunction with the performance, Tan Dun and Maxwell H. Hearn, Director of the Met’s Department of Asian Art, gave a talk about Kunqu. Dun mentioned that many major cities in the world have a Chinese garden, some of which were gifts from “sister cities” that he calls “Sleeping Beauties,” as not much is happening in them.
He described gardens as a platform, a perfect stage. He envisions people infusing the gardens with life, as they did in the past, when gardens were the sites of artistic and intellectual pursuits.
ASTOR COURT MODELED AFTER A SUZHOU GARDEN
The Met Museum’s Astor Court Chinese Scholar Garden was a wonderfully appropriate and intimate setting for this performance. The Court was conceived by Brooke Russell Astor in 1976 and built in 1980 by a team of Chinese craftsmen and American workers.
The first authentic Ming-style garden courtyard constructed outside of China, it was modeled on the Garden of the Master of the Fishing Nets in Suzhou, a city west of Shanghai known for its gardens and silk production.
VISITING A GARDEN IN SUZHOU
While in Shanghai this fall, I made a point of visiting Suzhou, as I wanted to see the Garden of the Master of the Fishing Nets, upon which Astor Court is modeled. Several friends and I made the 30-minute train trip from Shanghai that in the past would have taken over one hour and maybe three by car.
The famously refined and elegant Suzhou gardens span thousands of years, and some have been selected by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites. We visited a variety of gardens, all with poetic names such as “The Humble Administrator’s Garden,” “The Lion Grove Garden,” and “The Lingering Garden.”
Many of the intimate Suzhou gardens were built by scholars. An attempt to recreate natural landscapes in miniature, they feature key aspects of classical Chinese gardens such as landscapes of rocks, hills, and rivers, with strategically located pavilions and pagodas.
For years, I’ve dreamed of enjoying these gardens in pleasant weather without the throngs of tourists. My last visit was in the summer high season with unbearable heat and crowds.
Visiting in November, when the leaves were beginning to turn and the fall weather was perfect, I enjoyed the peace and quiet. We were able to hear the sounds of running water and birds calling, and we experienced the gardens as they were intended to be experienced. A dream fulfilled.
I. M. PEI SUZHOU MUSEUM
In town we also visited the modern I. M. Pei-designed Suzhou Museum (2006). As a youngster, Pei was influenced by the architecture and the famous gardens of Suzhou, and you can see the influences in his designs.
RECEPTION IN TEMPLE OF DENDUR
After the Met’s performance, there was a gala reception in the 15th-century sandstone Egyptian Temple of Dendur. This dramatic backdrop was a little discombobulating after being in the intimate Chinese Suzhou garden mood. But hey, it was right next door, and it is a spectacular setting.
Dim sum and open bar kept the energy up until midnight. As I left, I thought how beautifully the actors had performed even though they must have been jet lagged. After all, there is a 12-hour time difference between Shanghai and New York City.
THE CHINESE WATER TOWN OF ZHUJIAJIAO
After seeing this production, out of curiosity I went back to my 300,000 (and counting) photos from China, to find the images of the Peony Pavilion production in Zhujiajiao. (It took me a year to finally learn to pronounce this city’s name, which sounds something like “zoo jaw jowl”—to me, anyway.)
When you arrive at the canal town, often referred to as the “Venice of Shanghai,” you’re transported into another world of whitewashed houses, shops, cafes, restaurants, museums, and 36 stone bridges.
It’s a photographer’s dream and a favorite spot, so be warned: It’s always crowded on the weekends. But in the fall and in the evening, we enjoyed the beauty of the night scenery and atmosphere without the crowds.
REVISITING THE PEONY PAVILION PERFORMANCE IN ZHUJIAJIAO
The Ming-style Kezhi Garden in Zhujiajiao was the perfect setting for the staging of this tale of deep longing and love.
In comparing the two productions, I enjoyed the story more at the Met, as by then I understood the plot. I also appreciated the intimacy of Astor Court, where we could watch the actors perform close up.
In Zhujiajiao, the historic setting was magnificent; I loved viewing the actors in the garden while surrounded by nature and the natural sounds of the environment. In both places, I felt I’d left the world behind while I enjoyed the eternal story of youthful passion.
That night in the garden I again became aware of how China has become such an international hub. I ran into Shanghai-born Jay Xu, Director of the San Francisco Asian Art Museum; San Diegan music patrons Dolly and Victor Woo; art patron and gallerist Pearl Lam; San Franciscan art collectors Pam and Dick Kramlich; and London’s Jude Kelley.
THE STORY CONTINUES
Still today, traditional Chinese gardens are being built. At the performance, I met Suzy Moser and Dr. Edmond Pi of the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, who mentioned that the library is creating a twelve-acre “Garden of Flowing Fragrance.”
Some of the garden elements are being built by more than 60 Suzhou artists and shipped from China. When complete, it will feature seven pavilions and five stone bridges. The library so far has raised $32 million of the $50 million needed for the entire project.
I wonder if Tan Dun is already envisioning a Peony Pavilion performance in this classical garden setting?
But whether it’s being performed in the Met’s Astor Court, Zhujiajiao, the Huntington garden, or one of the many Chinese gardens around the world, try to see this delightful opera, which brings to contemporary life the elegant culture of ancient China.
Photos by Jeanne Lawrence, Stephanie Berger, Zhang Yi, and Karl von Moler.
*Urbanite Jeanne Lawrence reports on lifestyle and travel from her homes in San Francisco, Shanghai, and New York, and wherever else she finds a good story.